Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to “continue the war” in Ukraine until the government is changed in remarks made during a press conference at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on December 1. At the same time more details of what happened during the naval clash between Russian and Ukrainian ships last weekend were released by investigative reporters at Bellingcat, adding a little more clarity to the skirmish.
Putin said Russia will put the 24 Ukrainian sailors it seized from three ships in the Kerch straits last weekend on trial, and “prove” the clash was a “provocation” by Ukraine.
“We need to establish the fact that this was a provocation by the Ukrainian government and we need to put all these things on paper,” Putin said, adding the incident was part of a wider pattern of Ukrainian provocation.
“The current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this at all,” Putin said. “As long as they stay in power, war will continue. Why? Because when you have provocations, such hostilities like what just happened in the Black Sea … you can always use war to justify your economic failures.”
There is some confusion as both sides are blaming the other for the clash. Russia says that the Ukrainian ship didn't hail the Russian coast guard and ask for permission to pass through the straits, whereas Ukraine says its ship did ask for permission but received no response. Under a 2003 agreement the Kerch straits and Sea of Azov are jointly controlled by the two countries and all Russian and Ukrainian shipping has a guaranteed right of passage.
However, some observers in Kyiv, including bne IntelliNews have raised the possibility that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko provoked the clash on purpose in order to improve his position in the polls ahead of the March 2019 presidential election where he is trailing.
The Ukrainian government imposed 30 days of martial law on November 27 because the threat of a Russian attack, but civil society have complained afraid that if martial law is not lifted by the end of December then March’s elections will have to be cancelled or delayed. The Ukrainian constitution forbids holding elections while martial law is in place.
Putin added some more details about the incident. He admitted that the Ukrainian ships had communicated with the Russian coastguard but said they had refused to take on a Russia pilot.
The straits are actually a difficult channel to pass thanks to shallows on each side of the deeper channel that does not run in a straight line.
“The border guard told them: If you go through the Kerch strait you should hire our pilot. They said no, and they went straight for the strait. And that’s when the ships collided after that, because our border guard started squeezing them out,” Putin said.
The 2003 agreement is vague on this point. The Russian coastguard administers the straits but it is not clear if ships are obliged to take a pilot to navigate them. It is also not clear if the Russians have the authority to stop Ukrainian ships that refuse to comply with the Russian coastguard’s orders as they do have guaranteed right of passage. However, it does appear this is the first time a Ukrainian ship intending to traverse the straits has refused to take on a Russian pilot.
Putin added: “Prior to that they said they were going to blow up our bridge so what do you expect our border guards to do?” Putin did not make it clear if he was referring to a threat made by the Ukrainian ships or earlier threats made by some more radical politicians in Kyiv.
“They started running away, so that’s it,” the Russian president said. “The border guards acted in accordance with the orders they were given. Any border guards of any country would do that if their border was violated.”
Another crucial question is if the Ukrainian ships entered Russian territorial waters without permission or not. An investigation by Bellingcat concluded that it was almost certain that the Ukrainian ships did enter Russia’s undisputed waters off the mainland coast – territorial waters run to 12 nautical miles from a country’s beaches – but that the now infamous ramming and shooting incident probably happened in international waters after the Ukrainian ships had already turned around.
Bellingcat concludes there is still confusion over what happened as the location data provided by both the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ukrainian navy is imprecise, and the action happened within several hundred meters of the maritime border.
However, Bellingcat gave evidence to show the Ukrainian ships were hit multiple times by the Russian ones and they were also fired on several time, sustaining damage to both their hulls and superstructures.
But Bellingcat claims that one of the Ukrainian ships at one point of the day was clearly within Russia’s undisputed territorial waters (on the Russian mainland side of the straits, not the disputed Crimean side).
“Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to, territorial waters extend at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state. Notably, this additional position near the ‘Aviona’ shows a Ukrainian vessel within not just the territorial waters of Crimea, but also mainland Russia,” Bellingcat said in its report.
However, the report goes on to say that after 18:00 on November 25 the Ukrainian ships tried to leave the area and return to their home base in Odesa and were pursued, rammed, fired upon and eventually boarded by Russian special forces. The ships and their crew of 24 are now in Russian custody awaiting the results of an investigation and possibly a trial for violating Russia’s maritime territory. Where exactly the clash happened remains in dispute.
“Both sides made attempts to assert that this clash happened either outside of Russian territorial waters (in the case of Ukraine) and inside them (in the case of Russia),” Bellingcat reports, but concludes that even according to information provided by the Russians themselves it appears the clash happened in international waters, albeit extremely close to the maritime border.
“[T]he FSB data, if correct, shows that the ‘Berdyansk’ was 22.72km from the coast of Crimea, and more than 500m outside of Russian territorial waters when it came under fire,” Bellingcat reports. “Ukraine for its part provided less detailed information regarding key locations during this period.”
Finally, Bellingcat reports that photos from the ships, which are now in Kerch harbour, show the Russian forces were not shooting to disable the ships, but shooting to kill.
“Photos of the Ukrainian ships in port in Kerch post-capture show many small calibre bullet holes in the ‘Berdyansk’ as well as at least one large calibre hole in its bridge. This larger hit especially confirms that Russian forces were not shooting to disable the vessel, but rather to harm the crew. The FSB release itself notes that the Russian Coast Guard vessel ‘Izumrud’ issued threats to the ‘Berdyansk’ that “weapons to kill” would be used if the vessel did not comply with its request to stop,” Bellingcat reports.
The story will now go on to the international stage as Putin suggested there will be a high profile trial of the Ukrainian sailors in Moscow where Russian can be expected to parade whatever evidence it can glean from the Ukrainian ships’ logs. However, as Moscow has gone out of its way to lie or muddy the waters in other investigations, such as the downing of the commercial flight MH17 over Ukraine or the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, any evidence it presents is likely to be dismissed as fabricated.
Mistrust in Kyiv
The Sea of Azov incident has caused a storm of international condemnation as this is the first time a Russian military unit, flying a Russian flag, has acted in anger against a Ukrainian military unit flying a Ukrainian flag. This fact was taken as the justification by Poroshenko to declare martial law.
However, in Kyiv itself the population has been a lot more wary. Initially Poroshenko called for 60 days of martial law which would mean Ukraine would have been under martial law on December 31 when the official campaign season for the March 31 presidential elections starts. Under the Ukrainian constitution this means the presidential election would have to be delayed by at least one month as no election activity is allowed while martial law is in place.
The period was shorted to 30 days during a tense Rada session last week where deputies insisted that the elections should go ahead as planned. Poroshenko attempted to force the bill on martial law through unread by the deputies and its contents have still not been released in full, but are reported to contain other powers that would affect the campaign. When challenged on the Rada’s floor by opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who demanded to read the text, Poroshenko reportedly replied: “You’ll just have to trust me.” The Rada deputies refused to do that and removed many of the powers Poroshenko had sought in the bill.
Mistrust of Poroshenko’s motives has led leading civil rights campaigner Maxim Eristavi to write a commentary for the Washington Post suggesting that Ukrainian democracy was in danger.
“We cannot entrust arbitrary powers to a president who has continued to make policy with the same oligarchs who have been running the country as their personal fiefdom over the last two decades. We cannot trust a president who systematically fails to guarantee protections for journalists, whistleblowers, civil society activistsand minorities, and who still refuses to disclose the details of his recent meetings with Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, [Ukrainian politician] Viktor Medvedchuk,” Eristavi wrote, voicing the concerns of many in Kyiv.
Domestically, former opposition journalist and now lawmaker Sergey Leshchenko wrote an even more stringent attack on Poroshenko accusing him of a “Wag the dog” scenario, a reference to a movie by that name where a US presidential candidate invented a war to get himself elected. Leshchenko suggested that Poroshenko manufactured the incident in the Sea of Azov specifically to postpone, or even cancel entirely, the presidential election, which the current polls predict he will lose to opposition leader Tymoshenko.
Anecdotal evidence from vox pops of the population in the affected regions also suggests that the president’s tough-man approach is not having the desired effects. The people interviewed by RFE/RL suggested that the reason for martial law had more to do with the elections than protecting Ukraine from any imminent Russian attack. Nevertheless, all sides agree that Russia remains the aggressor in Ukraine and is waging a de facto war against the country.