On Saturday evening, three small Ukrainian naval vessels left the Ukrainian port of Odessa and headed for the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Along the way, they had to pass through the Kerch Strait, a sliver of water that lies between the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland. The Ukrainian ships were well within their rights to be there — a similar group of ships went through the strait just a month ago, and a 2003 treaty guarantees the rights of both nations to use those waters. But this time, in a carefully arranged provocation, Russian ships fired on the Ukrainian ships — and then seized them, along with 23 crew members.
In a certain sense, these events are no surprise. Though many have found it convenient to forget, the war between Russia and Ukraine still rumbles on. Those who are doing the fighting have long been braced for a Russian acceleration of the conflict. The only surprise is the timing: Why now?
Maybe there is no special reason. There have been a number of clashes in the waters around Crimea recently, ever since the Russians built a bridge to the peninsula; this may simply be Russia’s periodic reminder that it will not end its illegal occupation. The attack on the Ukrainian navy would also fit well into a bigger regional project: the long-term pressure on the port of Mariupol as well as a long stretch of Ukrainian coast that could be cut off from the rest of the Black Sea by the closure of the Kerch Strait.
But this is also an interesting moment in Russian domestic politics. This little military escapade comes in the wake of wide protests against changes to Russian pension laws, and is accompanied by great frustration with the slow economy. As news of what was described, of course, as a Ukrainian provocation broke in Russia, the country’s most prominent opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, immediately observed that recent polls showed a drop in the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Expect to hear more on television, he wrote sarcastically, about the “aggressive Kiev military, supported by hawks from the Potomac.” [Continue reading…]