Rising Crimea tensions mar Trump-Putin meeting

(Kerch Strait, Crimea, and Sea of Azov)

The ‘frozen conflict’ in Ukraine has suddenly become active on Sunday with an encounter involving the naval vessels of Ukraine and Russia at Kerch Strait in Crimea, the entry point of the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Russians have detained three Ukrainian ships that tried to enter the Sea of Azov (where Ukraine has two ports). Russian boats fired on the vessels for allegedly disregarding warnings and violating Russian territory. Three Ukrainian personnel received injuries.

The Sea of Azov was steadily becoming the focal point of tensions between Ukraine and Russia with Kiev asserting its right of navigation (under a 2003 treaty with Russia) and Moscow insisting on its sovereign prerogative to control the narrow Kerch Strait.

Of course, the tensions basically have their origin in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine calls the annexation illegal. Moscow estimates that western powers are egging on Ukraine to strengthen its naval presence in the Sea of Azov, which would of course have serious security implications for Crimea.

To compound matters, Russia has lately built a 19-km bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian hinterland. Russia suspects that there could be covert operations to damage the Kerch Bridge, which provides the vital communication link to Crimea.

(Russian engineering masterpiece: Kerch Strait Bridge)

From available details, Ukraine precipitated the incident on Sunday. Now, why would it have made such a move? One interpretation could be that it is all related to Ukrainian politics. Ukraine is heading for presidential and parliamentary elections in March next year. The incumbent pro-US president Petro Poroshenko is keen on securing another term. But he is terribly unpopular and his rating stands at 8% currently. He is unlikely to get a fresh mandate.

Interestingly, Poroshenko has seized Sunday’s incident in Kerch Strait to declare martial law. The martial law regulations give the government the power to curb public demonstrations, regulate the media and suspend the upcoming elections. The probability is high that Poroshenko is moving in the direction of canceling the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. And, arguably, the West would also like its s.o.b in power in Kiev at any cost.

But then, Ukraine situation is also at the very core of the tensions between Russia and the Western powers. It is all but certain that Poroshenko pushed the envelope only with some degree of quiet encouragement from certain Western power centres that may want to poke the Russian bear to see what its reaction could be.

What complicates matters is that the anti-Russian constituency in Europe and NATO on the one hand and the ‘Deep State’ in the US on the other (especially the Pentagon) are kindred souls in opposing President Trump’s agenda to improve relations with Russia. Significantly, the incident in Kerch Strait comes just before the planned meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in Argentina in the weekend.

The Kremlin has signaled that the forthcoming meeting in Argentina is on course. But the anti-Russian transatlantic caucus will try to undermine the meeting, if not get it derailed altogether. Their fear is that Trump is more assertive today (after the US midterm elections) than ever before in his presidency and might simply brush aside opposition to his agenda to improve relations with Russia.

To be sure, the Western camp which rejects Trump’s approach to Russia has lost no time to condemn Moscow for Sunday’s incident in Kerch Strait. The European Union, NATO and France have taken a strident position demanding that Russia should forthwith release the Ukrainian ships and the detained personnel. Moscow, in turn, has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, Sputnik reported that a Crete-based US spy plane entered the Black Sea area on Monday morning.

(Boeing RC-135V reconnaissance plane)

Of course, an open western military intervention can be ruled out. But the danger lies in the Ukrainian hardliners drawing encouragement from the Western support to stage more provocations against Russia that might lead to a conflict. A flare-up in Donbass between the Ukrainian army and the separatists (backed by Russia) also cannot be ruled out. Any such renewed tensions over Ukraine will help the Cold Warriors to demonize Russia as a revanchist power threatening European security. That, in turn, can provide the alibi for stepping up NATO’s backing for Ukraine and even to impose more sanctions against Russia.

In these circumstances, the upcoming meeting in Argentina between Trump and Putin is unlikely to be productive. Curiously, the transatlantic rift – over climate change, Iran, NATO budget, immigration, trade balance, etc. – has acquired a new dimension with Europe aligning with Trump’s adversaries in the US in a joint enterprise to thwart his best-laid plans to do business with Russia.