The Russian Navy on Sunday opened fire on three Ukrainian vessels, resulting in their capture along with two dozen crewmembers, as they attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov. The episode marks the most significant escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kyiv since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
For years, the legal status of the Sea of Azov, which is surrounded by Russian and Ukrainian territory, has been a point of friction. With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia gained control of both sides of the Kerch Strait, which provides the only passage from the Sea of Azov out to the Black Sea and ports beyond.
Now, in violation of a 2003 agreement with Kyiv, the Kremlin is effectively attempting to annex the Sea of Azov, by denying Ukraine free and safe passage through the Kerch Straits, which is the only means of maritime access to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov’s northern coast. As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said on Monday, “Impeding Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait is a violation under international law. It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept.”
For months, Russia has harassed Ukrainian vessels by impeding maritime traffic and detaining ships and their crews. Moscow’s completion of the Crimean Bridge, which has relatively low clearance, over the Kerch Strait earlier this year has also helped Russian further control the flow of traffic. In doing so, Russia is attempting to cut off key Ukrainian ports from conducting international commerce, thus further pressuring Kyiv.
This incident is a standard diversion tactic for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose approval ratings have fallen to its lowest levels since 2012 due to unpopular pension reforms and a stagnant economy.
At the same time, Putin seeks to test the West’s commitment to Ukraine. If Putin senses weakness or a lack of resolve on President Trump’s part to confront Russia, he will likely continue to escalate the standoff with Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections this spring. Increased tensions between Kyiv and Moscow will test Poroshenko’s commitment to the democratic process and the rule of law in light of his recent imposition of martial law.
On Thursday, President Trump rightly canceled his upcoming meeting with Putin at the G20 summit. Moving forward, the Trump administration and Congress should work together to send Moscow a clear message that Washington will support Ukraine and continue to increase the financial pressure on the Kremlin and its allies.
First, beyond demanding that Russia release the Ukrainian vessels and crewmembers, President Trump should insist that Russia lift the effective blockade of the Sea of Azov and abide by previous agreements over it. Second, the administration should lead efforts with European allies to enhance the lethal capabilities of Ukraine’s naval forces. Third, the United States, in conjunction with its NATO allies, should increase patrols and exercises in the Black Sea. Finally, Washington should consider enacting tough new sanctions proposed in the Senate, including a ban on new investments in Russian sovereign debt.
Russian aggression cannot go unanswered. History suggests that when Putin thinks he can get away with aggression in the region, he will not hesitate to act accordingly.
Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations and Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @rolltidebmz. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.