Explainer: Reasons Russia Attacked the Ukrainian Navy
7 December, 2018

Almost two weeks after Russia’s attack on Ukrainian navy vessels near the Kerch Strait, many people are still wondering how and why the escalations occurred.

From the Russian side, the answers appear to be more obvious. As Deputy Chair of Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies Oleksandr Khara told Hromadske, “the Russians are trying to connect the two hot points: the Donbas war and the frozen conflict in Crimea by cutting Ukraine out of the sea.”

Additionally, there is a significant economic reason behind Russia’s decision to choke some of Ukraine’s most important ports.

“[It’s] economic warfare because we have two major ports on the Azov Sea, and some 20% of trade on maritime routes are carried out there,” Khara stated.

For Ukraine however, there is still skepticism as to whether or not their side provoked the attack. For Khara, there is no question. According to international law, both Ukraine and Russia have the right to use those waters. Moreover, the fact that Russia has been strengthening its military presence in the area since before the illegal annexation of Crimea prompted Ukraine to at least try and secure its trade routes.

“The reason for Ukraine’s actions was to secure our sea lane, first and foremost, then our border. And we are vulnerable to Russian assault attacks on our seashore near Mariupol and Berdyansk,” Khara adds.

There is also the issue of the capabilities of the Ukrainian navy. It is unlikely that Ukraine would have provoked an attack against a naval force as powerful as Russia’s.

“They're just gunboats, you cannot compare by the deadweight or the armament that they have with the [Russian] fleet, particularly in the Azov Sea, because we should certainly keep in mind that there is the Russian Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea,” Khara commented, adding that Russia even has missiles in Simferopol that could reach London.

He also mentioned that it’s clear from the intercepted videos that the Ukrainian side acted calmly, stating over the radio that they were not pointing any weaponry at Russia and that they were asking for free passage through shared waters.

According to Khara, the November 25 attack may not be the last time Russia will try and test Ukraine’s maritime capabilities. He says that the Black Sea and the Ukrainian port of Odesa, through which 80% of Ukraine’s maritime trade passes, could be the next target.

And it’s not just Ukraine that should be worried about Russia’s intentions in the Black and Azov seas. As Khara points out, Russia uses its ports on these coasts and on occupied Crimea to transport weapons and goods to the Assad regime in Syria.

“So this grey zone has become a sort of leverage towards the situation in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, so we just keep in mind why the international community should react by imposing sanctions on Russia,” Khara commented.

When it comes to the role international partners could play in helping Ukraine face Russia’s maritime aggression, Khara states that defense support is key.

“If we are talking about Ukraine, the international support, and especially bilateral support from the United States, United Kingdom and some other European partners to strengthen our navy, to strengthen our air defense,” he states.