Russia Tried To Make A Crisis Out Of An Aging Ukrainian Transport’s Meandering Day-Trip

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Russia apparently tried—and mostly failed—to stage a crisis in the Sea of Azov on Thursday and Friday.

The seemingly deliberate provocation, which involved an antique Ukrainian navy transport and reams of Russian propaganda, came as Moscow continues to build up forces around Ukraine for a possible invasion in coming weeks or months.

The Sea of Azov lies north of the Black Sea and connects to that larger body of water via the narrow Kerch Strait. Ukraine is on the west of the sea. Russia is on the east.

Ukraine’s access to the Kerch Strait wasn’t a problem until Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014. Now Russia controls both sides of the strait and demands Ukraine ask permission before sending ships through it. That gives Moscow the power to, at will, sever the sea lines of communication between northern and southern Ukraine—this despite a 2003 treaty giving Moscow and Kiev joint control of the waterway.

In late 2018 Russians forces attacked, captured and temporarily held, along with their crews, three Ukrainian navy vessels passing south to north into the Sea of Azov. The brazen seizure prompted several countries to impose sanctions on Russia.

This week’s crisis initially looked like a possible repeat of the 2018 one. The Ukrainian navy transport Donbas—a 400-foot-long former Soviet vessel of 1969 vintage—had entered the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait just before the 2018 incident. On Thursday Donbas sailed from the Ukrainian naval base in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov’s western edge, and wandered south.

The Ukrainian government explained that Donbas was just out on training. The Kremlin insisted Donbas was making a run for the Kerch Strait without Moscow’s permission—a claim Kiev denied.

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“This is a new provocation,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said. “This is not a one-off, individual incident. This is a series of provocative actions that are being carried out around our borders.”

In an apparent effort to bottle up Donbas and possibly create a legal pretext for seizing the vessel, the Russian government on Thursday or Friday announced artillery drills across the Sea of Azov, designating no-go zones that covered 70 percent of the body.

The U.S embassy in Kiev blasted Russia’s harassment of the ship and her crew. “The Donbas has every right to sail in [Ukrainian] waters,” the embassy tweeted. “Russia’s false allegations are part of its ongoing campaign to distract from its latest aggressive, provocative action.”

The stage was set for an international drama with two long-warring countries in the lead roles. Russian vessels intercepted Donbas but, fortunately for everyone, the Russians didn’t try to board the tired old vessel. Donbas turned around and returned to Mariupol.

The embassy accurately pointed out that the rules Moscow has imposed on Kiev for accessing the Kerch Strait hinge on Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and, in any event, also violate the 2003 treaty as well as a whole bunch of international norms. “New, illegal restrictions in the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov—yet another act of aggression against [Ukraine],” the embassy tweeted.

If Russia opts to widen its war on Ukraine by, say, rolling a tank army across eastern Ukraine, it might first seek a confrontation that it can cite as justification for an attack. A crisis at sea is a classic trigger.

All that is to say, the world dodged a bullet when Donbas sailed home without an exchange of gunfire. But don’t celebrate quite yet. The Kremlin hasn’t loosened its grip on the Sea of Azov. And the Russian army remains poised for an invasion.

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