by Pavlina Pavlova

The crisis around the Sea of Azov caught the world’s attention as the latest example of Russian aggression, but a combination of transcendent ideology and uncompromising geography is needed to explain the complexities of Russian foreign policy leading into the current conflicts

The new military crisis around the Azov Sea brought fears of open military conflict before everybody retired for the winter break. Rising security tensions provided not only for bold headlines but led to martial law in Ukraine and a recurrent headache for Europe. Just six days before the incident occurred, EU foreign ministers met to discuss the militarization around the Kerch Strait but parted company in hope that the issue would be solved with official statements. The Sea forced itself onto the agenda now. This topic is highly sensitive for Europe, which is expected to take Ukraine’s side, yet the implication for the world could be far-reaching as the situation bears some parallels to the dispute over the South China Sea.  

The Sea of Azov is located northeast of Crimea and according to a 2003 agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, these are shared waters of both countries. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 turned the tables and gave Russia de facto control of both sides of the Kerch strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Consequently, Russians started to build a bridge linking southern Russia with the annexed territory. Called the “Crimean Bridge” after an online vote, with “Kerch Bridge” and “Reunification Bridge” coming in as the second and third most popular choices, the bridge was opened in spring 2018 and gave Russia complete control over the sea traffic – threatening the viability of Ukrainian economic activity in the Eastern part of the country.   

Russia has been stopping and delaying naval traffic, including commercial ships, over the summer. However, even by the Russian interpretation of Crimea’s status, the country still has no legal right to stop Ukrainian ships which have an irrevocable right to access their national ports on the Sea of Azov. Ukraine took the risk of deploying a very small share of their navy, resulting in the seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships and twenty-three sailors. The incident exacerbated to the further destabilisation of the region, which already has been shaky since 2015, and a massive response from both sides – Ukraine reacted by introducing martial law in ten regions and Moscow called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting, showing that both sides wanted this topic to be prominent.   

A firestorm of finger-pointing followed next. Russians accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of escalating the situation for political credit in the upcoming presidential elections. His decision to push for martial law was indeed somehow controversial as such measures were not introduced back in 2014 or 2015 despite large-scale fighting in Eastern Ukraine. The accusations of exploiting the situation are not too far-fetched. Ukraine is preparing for both presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in March and October 2019 respectively, and they still have a very uncertain outcome. Two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is having one of her more successful comebacks and seemed to be leading in opinion polls. Countering accusations of being too close to Russia, she is running with the slogan – yes to NATO, yes to the EU. Opposing her is Poroshenko taking a nationalist line with slogans like “Army! Language! Faith!ˮ – And an opportunity has presented itself to prove his point.  

The question remains why Russia would help a candidate running on an anti-Russian ticket. From Russia’s point of view, this conflict barely makes sense, yet by intensifying this conflict they gave Poroshenko additional credibility. Some find the answer in Putin’s rating problem. The President’s popularity has been plummeting to a five-year low as Russian voters rage over government pension reforms. The level of dissatisfaction is notable given that Putin had his biggest-ever victory in March 2018 elections with 77 per cent of the vote. Back in the days, it was the Crimean crisis that elevated his ratings, in similar way as the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, and it is hence understandable to suspect that he is trying to pull the same trick. At the same time, to assume that Putin is willing to risk negative international attention for a short-lived rating recovery seems somewhat short-sighted, notably because Putin doesn’t have to go to the polls until 2024. 

The motive, as in most cases, is probably as much in the economics and geopolitics of the situation, as it is a natural reaction to the rapidly changing situation while trying to secure the country’s political gains. For Russia, to cut off the trade from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is one way to squeeze Ukraine’s economy, giving Kyiv only two options – to accept the new status quo, which would lead Eastern Ukraine deeper into economic depression by preventing trade – or to reject Russian blocking as a type of illegitimate behaviour. Ukrainians understandably did not accept such conditions and instead mobilised public and diplomatic channels to reopen their access to the Azov Sea. The Russian reaction of calling on an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council came as an inevitably loud answer to the negative coverage of the event.   

Russian foreign policy has often been demonised but the basic line remains simple – just as the country itself – it is a mixture of almost romantic beliefs in its own exceptionalism, resulting in an unwillingness to compromise, and sober realpolitik owing more to the country’s vulnerability rather than actual power. None of these traits are unique in world history. Most, if not all, global powers suffered similar grandiose visions and claimed their heavenly mandate, as the examples of American and Chinese exceptionalism demonstrate. The sense of having unique qualities and a special mission has formed many national foreign policies and became an idealistic cover for unapologetic self-interest. Russia’s belief has been remarkably resilient and even strengthened by the harsh living conditions of Russian people, reaching all-time highs in the post-war Soviet Union. The greater was the shock of the 90s collapse resulting in a nation-wide trauma from which Russians never entirely recovered. Coupled with recurrent phases of grandeur and inferiority, the country’s foreign policy demonstrated irreconcilable contradictions in its relations to the West and reluctance to join international bodies except those where it enjoys a dominant status. A supporting factor is a favourable view of a ‘strong state’ among many Russians, a belief rooted in influential interpretations of the country’s history, which benefits authoritarian leaders and turns a blind eye towards the subversion of institutions – parallels of which we can see all around the world, with Europe being no exception.  

Still, another factor that has shaped Russia’s foreign policy like no other is the country’s unique geography. Russia is the largest country in the world by territory yet their only natural borders are the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. Having been historically involved in conflicts on many fronts, Russia has come to an understanding of its vulnerability and has often displayed a kind of defensive aggressiveness. Foreign policy formed under such conditions could not avoid being based on an offensive moving outward as a way of preventing an external attack and this belief was only supported by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Smaller neighbours of Russia are thus perceived as “buffer zones”, making it a question of self-preservation to steer them away from Western influence.  

While geographical weaknesses cannot fade away, Russian leadership could set the country on a less costly and more promising course of international cooperation. What we need is to go beyond the question of who benefits from any given situation, reach beyond theories, rumours and pre-conceived judgements, and try to find a workable solution. Opening up the Sea of Azov for international monitoring from the OSCE or UN could be one of the options to bring much-needed clarity and transparent rules on the Sea access. The standing international law is however very clear on this matter – any solution would have to be a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia is not open to any international mediator.   

The most probable outcome is the creation of the third frontline after Crimea and Donbas – two land front lines which have been consolidated and which will probably remain more or less stable in the upcoming years. Further incidents are very likely, but they will not escalate into war as the economics of the conflict are decisive. Putting aside international repercussions, Ukraine has no serious naval capacities and for Russia, it is much more sensible to drive Eastern Ukraine into crisis and corrode its stability with blocking their trade through the Azov Sea – a kind of frozen conflict which Moscow has mastered to play.

05 February 2019
This text was published in Bullseye issue 75