The Russian detention of Ukrainian naval vessels and sailors from the Black Sea, when they were allegedly illegally trying to cross the Kerch straits (Review, 11/18), continued to dominate interactions with Europe. Russia resisted strong European pressure to release the vessels and soldiers, insisting that an investigation is underway to establish whether the Ukrainian vessels had deliberately violated the terms of the Russia-Ukraine agreement on the passage through the Kerch straits (as the Russians claim the ships’ logs indicate).
There were probably a number of motivations behind this intransigence. First, the desire to show Ukraine (and the world) that Russian patience with Ukrainian provocations has run out. The Russians have a litany of complaints about recent Ukrainian actions, including acts of violence against its Russian-speaking population and non-compliance with local ceasefire agreements in eastern Ukraine, brokered by the OSCE monitoring mission. Second, as hinted in comments of the Russian leadership, the intention may be to negotiate an exchange for a number of Russians in Ukrainian custody on various charges. Third, the Russians want to deny Ukrainian President Poroshenko a propaganda victory that may boost his re-election prospects in the forthcoming Ukrainian presidential elections. Finally, it may be a signal to the US, which the Russians have been accusing of progressively increasing its military presence in the Black Sea and encouraging Ukrainian “provocations” to justify this increased presence.
In the background of the Kerch Strait standoff, it was no surprise that the European Council decided to extend EU sanctions against Russia (a range of them, starting from the 2014 Russian “annexation” of Crimea) by another six months from January 2019. This extension provoked little reaction in Russia or Europe, since it would have happened even without the Kerch incident and, moreover, businesses in Europe and Russia have adjusted to the sanctions regime, finding ways round it to promote their interests. As covered in earlier Reviews, trade and investment exchanges between Russia and major European countries have been growing steadily in the past two years, with annual trade increase percentage in double digits in many cases.
The Russian government was far more incensed by a resolution of the European Parliament calling for the cancellation of the Russia-Germany undersea Baltic Sea gas pipeline, in the interests of European energy security. The MFA spokeswoman described the resolution as “madness, provoked by the US”. The other unwelcome development for Russia was a strong NATO statement endorsing the US decision on withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, supporting the US stand that it was in full compliance with the Treaty and putting the onus of saving the treaty on Russia, by returning to full compliance. It may be recalled that when President Trump first announced his decision to withdraw from INF, there had been both negative and positive reactions from EU countries (Review, 10/18). The NATO statement reflects US success in marshalling the support of the “pro-US” European NATO members to carry the resolution.
December 30, 2018