Kerch Strait attack testifies that Kremlin’s aggression has no limits

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The Kerch Strait blocked by a Russian commercial ship. [Twitter]

The leniency of the West encouraged Russia to take its aggression against Ukraine to a new level, writes Mykola Tochytskyi, who puts forward several recommendations.

Mykola Tochytskyi is Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the EU.

Russia’s recent open attack on Ukrainian naval vessels showcased that the Kremlin went further from its covert hybrid aggression to blatant military attacks against Ukraine.

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has lasted for almost 5 years. Russia illegally occupied Crimea and a part of Donbas. About 11,000 people have been killed.

All this time the Kremlin denied the fact of military aggression against Ukraine and used the tactics of lying and twisting facts resorting to “we are not there” explanations.

But on 25 November 2018 everything changed. The inability of the international community to translate their “concern” into efficient deeds to hold the aggressor accountable, gave Russia a free hand to do whatever it wants, to cross all possible red-lines, disregard the rule of law not even trying to hide this.

The Russian military aggression de-facto expanded from the land to the sea.

On that day, three vessels of the Naval Forces of Ukraine were carrying out a planned transit voyage from the port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea. As Russia blocked the passage thought the Kerch strait and its coastguard ship intentionally rammed into one of the Ukrainian vessels, it became clear that they were not going to be able to pass through. Therefore the Ukrainian Navy ships started to head back to Odessa.

On their way back Russia’s coast guard opened targeted and unprovoked fire at the Ukrainian vessels. As a result the three Ukrainian vessels were illegally captured and damaged. 24 Ukrainian servicemen have been seized and imprisoned, 6 of them were wounded.

Let me be very clear on several crucial aspects:

  1. The Russian side was informed about the intention to make a transit through the strait in advance in order to ensure the safety of navigation.
  2. The Ukrainian vessels operated within the sovereign and internationally recognized state borders of Ukraine.

The resolutions of the UN General Assembly clearly recognises the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the internationally recognised state borders, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol and the territorial waters around it.

  1. Russia failed once again to uphold its international commitments

The right to unhindered passage through the Kerch Strait is enshrined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and bilateral agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.

The Article 2 of the Treaty clearly states that “merchant ships and warships, as well as other state vessels under the flag of Ukraine or the Russian Federation, that are exploiting for non-commercial purposes, enjoy freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait”.

Such Russian behaviour also constitutes a clear act of aggression as set out in the provisions of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/29/3314 “Definition of Aggression” and is a blatant breach of UN Charter.

Obviously the act of aggression in the Kerch Strait with the use of weapons and the capture of Ukrainian vessels and military personnel was planned by the Russian side to “prove” its sovereignty over the Crimean waters. But it also confirms the far reaching goal of Russia to gradually occupy the Sea of Azov and block Ukrainian ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol.

In response to an open act of the aggression committed by Russia and given a high risk of further offensive against Ukraine’s sovereignty, the President of Ukraine supported the initiative to adopt martial law on a temporarily basis. The Law was adopted on 26 November introducing a martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine for the period of time of 30 days starting from 28 November. At the time of martial law Ukraine remains committed to its international obligations, including the Minsk agreements.

The constitutional rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech, of the citizens of Ukraine will not be restrained. The martial law will not affect the electoral campaigns in Ukraine – the Parliament of Ukraine set the date of the presidential elections for 31 March 2019 as foreseen by the Constitution. The bank and financial system will conduct their routine work.

What’s next?

We are grateful to our international partners for quick reaction with statements and condemnation of a new act of Russian aggression against Ukraine. But it is only with consolidated resolute actions (not statements) that we can make the Kremlin to return to the framework of international law and stop its aggression.

Russia’s aggression in Azov and Black Seas is not only an evident threat to international peace and security but also entails big losses and risks for international shipping business which can face Russian state run piracy in the sea. The most important thing though is that we should not allow Russia to add 24 detained seamen to the list of around 70 Ukrainian political prisoners.

With this in mind we urge our partners and friends to act decisively, in particular:

  • to join our demand to the Russian Federation to provide necessary medical assistance to the wounded servicemen, immediately release the 24 captured Ukrainian sailors and return the three Ukrainian boats;

We expect Russia without any delay to provide information regarding the captured Ukrainian sailors (legal grounds for their detention; place of detention; injuries and provided medical assistance) as it was obliged by the European Court of Human Rights in accordance with Rule 54 of the Rules.

  • to put the issue of new Russian act of aggression near the Kerch Strait on the agenda of the upcoming Foreign Affairs Council and the European Council with the aim of imposing a new set of sanctions, including against Russia’s Azov ports, individuals responsible for the aggressive actions against Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and their crew, the Russian Navy ships involved as well as considering new economic and sectoral sanctions with regard to further destabilization of the situation;
  • to ensure enhanced permanent posture of allies, including NATO military ships, in the Black Sea;
  • to support the establishment of permanent OSCE monitoring in the area of the Sea of Azov and Kerch strait;
  • to support of Ukraine’s UN GA draft resolution on the militarisation of the Crimea and the Sea of Azov.

Russia is an aggressor, which must be stopped. Otherwise, an attempt to appease the aggressor would lead to the dire consequences. We have already witnessed such tragic examples in the world history.  We have to act resolutely if we do not want the history to repeat.

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