Two weekends ago, the Heritage Foundation held its 2018 National Security Seminar in Colorado Springs. Journalists from around the country were able to engage with some of the nation’s top national security experts.
One of the speakers was the Honorable Kurt Volker, the State Department’s special representative for Ukraine negotiations. He spoke at length on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, who, says Volker, seeks to reinstate Russia’s place on the world stage — and neither Putin nor the Russian government care who gets hurt in the execution of that goal.
Volker discussed Russia’s earlier invasion and annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine — and the ongoing struggles of Ukraine to maintain its independence. Ukraine and Russia have been fighting a limited war since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region. Moscow has every intention of eventually annexing all of Ukraine.
None of us in that room had any way of knowing just how prophetic Volker’s discussion would be. Exactly one week later, on Nov. 25, two Ukrainian gunboats and a Ukrainian tug were in the Black Sea, entering the Kerch Strait when Russian vessels fired on the ships and rammed the tugboat.
The Russians seized all three vessels and arrested their crew members. Several Ukrainian sailors were injured.
According to Russian Federal Security Service — the FSB — the Ukrainian ships entered a temporarily closed area in Russian territorial waters.
“There is irrefutable evidence proving that Kiev was preparing and staged a provocation involving the Ukrainian Navy in the Black Sea,” the FSB said in a statement.
The Ukrainian government accused the Russian coast guard vessels of committing acts of aggression. Kiev calls the seizure a flagrant violation of international law, because the incidents happened in the Black Sea, which is open to all nations. Kiev also cites the violation of a 2003 Russia-Ukraine treaty on shared territorial waters.
Ukraine is a maritime nation. Many of its most important ports are on the Sea of Azov. Full access and free transit through the Kerch Strait — the only passage between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea — are vitally important to the nation both economically and militarily. And yet Russian officials have frequently delayed or denied passage to Ukrainian ships passing through the strait.
“This attack, of course, is not accidental. This is clearly an element planned by Russians in the escalation of the situation in the waters of the Sea of Azov, which has been lasting for several months. And I’m sure this is still not a culmination,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Monday.
As apparent proof of that statement, on Thursday, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister announced that two Ukrainian Azov Sea ports, Berdyansk and Mariupol, are being blockaded by Russia. As of this writing, 35 vessels were being barred from leaving and entering.
Experts agree that Sunday’s incident was planned. The Heritage Foundation surmises Putin may have ordered the aggressive action to bolster his approval ratings. It notes that in 2013, when he authorized the invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea, his approval ratings jumped from 54 percent to 83 percent.
The Russian president seemingly could not care less that his latest stunt heightens the threat of all-out war between Ukraine and Russia and has all but destroyed any chances of improved relations between Moscow and the West.
“The United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia. But outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible,” American Ambassador Nikki Haley said during an emergency meeting held Monday at the U.N.
Since last Sunday, an international crisis has developed amid escalating tensions. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, scheduled a meeting at Poroshenko’s request.
The organization issued a formal condemnation of Russia, reading in part: “There is no justification for Russia’s use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel. We call on Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized, without delay.”
Long one of Putin’s strongest critics, Ambassador Haley noted that “what we witnessed this weekend is yet another reckless Russian escalation. The United States continues to stand with the people of Ukraine against this Russian aggression.”
But, what, exactly, will standing with Ukraine entail?
Should Putin actually invade Ukraine, how would the U.S. react?
We do have a sizable military presence in the region. The Army and the Marine Corps keep rotating forces in Eastern Europe. Throughout 2018, the Air Force has conducted several large military exercises with Ukrainian forces. And the Navy’s 6th Fleet is constantly on patrol in the Black Sea.
Tensions between the two nations have flared recently as Russian jets dangerously buzz U.S. reconnaissance planes flying over the Black Sea.
According to the Military Times, on Nov. 5, “videotaped footage released by the Pentagon showed a Flanker on the starboard side of a Greece-based Navy EP-3Aries II banking right of its nose before the Russian hit his afterburners, forcing the (American) plane to fly through the turbulent wash.”
There’s much that the U.S. and NATO could do now, such as heightening their military presence in the area and increasing patrols in the Black Sea.
Poroshenko is requesting NATO warships enter the Azov Sea. It’s notable that the Ukrainian military is far stronger today than it was in 2016, thanks to American support and training. As it stands today, it has the second largest military in the region — the only one stronger is Russia’s.
But if we are asked to come to Ukraine’s aid, how do we respond? Will an American public, weary after more than 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, be willing to lose more American lives in another conflict in another faraway country?
And yet, if we do nothing and allow Putin to continue his power grab across the region, will we one day find ourselves confronted by a far superior Soviet Union 2.0?