Kerch Strait crisis exposes fragility of improvement in Russia-EU ties

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/7 14:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia and the Crimean Peninsula on May 15, 2018. The fact that Putin was there was a reminder of the bridge's strategic value to Russia. The structure links Crimea with Russia's transport network, allowing for the smooth transfer of supplies directly into the Crimean heartland. 

The Kerch Strait Bridge has given rise to new concerns as the Sea of Azov has become a closed water region controlled by Russia. How Russia and Ukraine should pass through the Kerch Strait has become a hot-button issue.

Russia and Ukraine agreed to the principle of freedom of movement through the strait and the Sea of Azov in 2003, which is supposed to be valid after the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. On November 25, however, three Ukrainian Navy vessels violated the treaty when they attempted to pass through the waterway from the Black Sea, heading into the Sea of Azov through the strait without receiving proper clearance beforehand. Russia's response was relentless.

The incident has not only shed light on Russia-Ukraine ties, but also has a profound impact on Russia's relations with Europe.

Judging from the events that unfolded in the strait, Ukraine was clearly the instigator and Russia was the responder. When the US and the EU became involved, they found themselves trapped within the role of Ukraine's protector.

Ukraine's position bears a striking resemblance to Georgia in 2008 during the Russo-Georgian War. In both cases, it was the smaller countries who initiated incidents only later to be sanctioned by Russia. However, unlike Georgia, Ukraine realized its intention with the Kerch Strait incident.

To begin with, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko increased his domestic approval rating by the conflict borne out of the Kerch Strait thus creating a foundation for the country's upcoming presidential election in March. A November poll revealed Poroshenko's approval rating was lower than former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's as his administration had achieved little in the past five years.

Under Poroshenko's administration, not only did the economy descend into a stalemate, but Ukraine-Russia relations showed no improvement. On December 3, one week after the Kerch Strait skirmish, Poroshenko tabled legislation calling for an immediate end to the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty. From the standpoint of Ukrainian nationalists, the abolition of the treaty was undoubtedly one of Poroshenko's few notable achievements.

Second, on the grounds of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict, Poroshenko signed a decree on November 26 declaring a national state of emergency, banning all public demonstrations. It was a strategic move that narrowed the opposition's range.

Third, the incident forced European countries to take a stand. Since 2014, although European countries have backed Ukraine and sanctioned Russia on many occasions, numerous reports have emerged claiming that EU-Russia relations have improved in private and that the European countries acquiesced during Russia's annexation of Crimea. The warming Russia-Europe relations from 2018 have placed strategic pressure on Ukraine. Ukraine has been worried about becoming the victim of EU-Russia trade and has been especially sensitive over Crimea's status.

What happened in the Kerch Strait, at its fundamental core, was a dispute over Crimea's sovereign entitlement. Russia believes the strait is part of its territory, therefore falling under its full jurisdiction. Ukraine, on the other hand, has claimed that the waterway is controlled by both sides, who have the right of free passage. Europe's support for Ukraine in this matter is an acknowledgment of the country's sovereignty over Crimea. Nevertheless, European countries have no choice but to follow the Ukrainian script.

The result of the Kerch Strait incident has indicated that Ukraine will be the winner. Although Ukraine suffered loss of naval equipment, it accepted military assistance from the US and Europe to enhance defense capability.

The most significant impact this incident has had within the arena of international politics has caused the rift between Russia and Europe to deepen. Although European sanctions against Russia have not been lifted, in particular the collective sanctions imposed against Russia in last year's Sergei Skripal case, it has been observed that Russia-Europe relations are improving.

Last year, French and German leaders visited Moscow and negotiated with Kremlin lawmakers on the Iranian nuclear agreement and the Syrian situation. Putin was invited to attend the World War I commemoration in Paris and accorded a warm welcome. And the Nord Stream 2 project established by Russia and the EU made substantial progress. These joint efforts were impacted by the Kerch Strait incident by the end of 2018. However, even if European countries are reluctant, they must show their support for Ukraine.

In general, the Kerch Strait incident is merely a small example of the current tension within Russia-Ukraine relations, but its impact far exceeds the scope of bilateral ties, reflecting fragile Russia-Europe relations. The notion of improving Russia-Europe ties is still beset with great difficulty.

The author is an assistant of scientific research at the Research Center for Co-development with Neighboring Countries, East China Normal University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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