TONY KEVIN. The Kerch Strait gambit

Nov 28, 2018

A Kiev-provoked Ukraine/Russia naval clash near the Kerch Strait, Crimea, threatens to derail the Argentina G20 Summit (30 Nov -1 Dec) and to worsen US-Russia bilateral relations.  NATO allies are lining up behind a false Ukrainian narrative. The war in Eastern Ukraine could escalate now. 

First, a little essential geography. The Kerch Strait , joining the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov, is a narrow shallow passage , less than 24 NM wide at its narrowest point. So it all falls within Russian territorial waters, if Crimea is accepted as being now part of Russian territory: a claim firmly made by Russia since 2014, but disputed by the West.

Russia has recently completed an 18 km rail and road bridge over the Kerch Strait : a longheld Russian dream to join Crimea to southern mainland Russia. There is one navigable shipping canal at the centre of the bridge, 227 metres long , with 35 metres clearance under  the bridge, enough for large ships . The shipping canal is kept dredged deeply enough to allow large civilian ships (with tugboat assistance for navigation) to pass through to Russian and Ukrainian  ports in the Sea of Azov. Russia has declared the maritime passage under the bridge free for use by international civilian shipping.

Ukraine last week sent two small naval vessels and a naval tugboat from Odessa to attempt to traverse the strait . No Russian permission was sought or obtained. The three Ukrainian  naval vessels were intercepted by Russian naval vessels in Crimean territorial waters south of the bridge, and forced to stop. Some shots were exchanged. The tugboat was rammed in an interception manouevre between two converging Russian naval ships: it appears the tugboat captain may have deliberately  steered his vessel into the path of one of them, and suffered minor damage as a result. Russia impounded the three vessels.

Russia blocked the bridge passage temporarily with a large cargo vessel positioned athwart, directly under the bridge. It has been speculated that Russia  may have feared a Ukrainian suicide attack with vessels carrying explosives to be detonated under the bridge. In the circumstances it is remarkable that Russia conducted itself so circumspectly in the encounter, and  that there was almost no loss of life.

The maritime passage has now been reopened to civilian shipping.

The Ukrainian case  has been promptly supported  by Western governments , as reported by New York Times.  At the UN Security Council, according to NYTimes, “Russia’s attempt to use the Security Council session to blame Ukraine for the violence backfired, as ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France and others accused Russia of recklessness and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty”

This false narrative is already solidifying in Western media, including no doubt Australia.

Yet the facts are that the Ukrainian gambit was foolishly irresponsible, even suicidal. The crews are lucky their ships were not blown out of the water. Of course it would have been impossible for them to be allowed to sail unchallenged under this highly strategic and vulnerable Russian bridge, given the continuing state of war between the Kiev government  and Russian -backed opposition  forces in the nearly eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk  and Lugansk.

Embattled Ukrainian President  Poroshenko was quick to declare martial law in the adjoining eastern government- controlled provinces. The civil war – which has involved low level hostilities in recent months – could now flare up again. The burgeoning Nazi movement in Ukraine will draw strength from these events, using them to whip up Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalism which is already  at almost hysterical level. It will not help Poroshenko’s  main rival in next year’s Ukraine presidential election, Julia Timoshenko. She will be forced to match Poroshenko’s escalating  Russophobia.

The forthcoming G20 Summit will be marred by this incident. The expected focus was to be on US-China trade tensions. G20 was to be an opportunity for other members to urge moderation by both sides and for their current trade  tensions to be addressed in a multilateral WTO context,  rather than by reciprocal sanctions and counter-sanctions.

The Kerch incident introduces a new wild card. How will it affect the  anticipated Putin-Trump bilateral in the margins of G20 ? It certainly cannot have improved the prospects for a useful conversation. Trump will be briefed by his confrontational advisers to  ‘shirtfront’ Putin over the  Kerch  incident , which the Western false narrative  is already claiming was provoked by Russia. Will Trump fall for this? Or will he have to pretend to, if he is not to face another wave of Russophobe condemnation as happened after the ill-fated Helsinki Summit  ?

In a worst case scenario, the Buenos Aires meeting could degenerate into bilateral East-West acrimony, with Russia  and China lining up together against NATO and allied G20 members, including Australia.

This was not what the G20 was intended to be. A sour and  angry meeting  in Buenos Aires will threaten to unravel the multilateral economics- focussed spirit of G20, an important forum for Australia. .

Will Australia  take a statesmanlike multilateral  position in this moment of mounting East- West tensions? The signs do not augur well.  It is hard to see Marise Payne  as a voice for moderation.

Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, an Emeritus Fellow at Australian  National University, Canberra, and the author of ‘Return to Moscow’ (2017) 



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