Europeans have been jolted back into understanding how volatile Russia's relations with its neighbours are after its navy seized Ukrainian boats and sailors in the Kerch Strait. Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko imposed martial law on eastern provinces, warned of full scale war with Russia and called yesterday for Nato naval protection of Ukrainian ports. Russian President Vladimir Putin described the clash as "a provocation" organised by Poroshenko ahead of presidential elections. European leaders, preoccupied with other major issues, rapidly adjusted to this reopened source of instability.
The realisation this is a dormant and not a frozen conflict came with last week's fifth anniversary of the Maidan revolt by civil society groups in Kiev and western Ukraine. They were protesting against the then president Viktor Yanukovich's decision to turn down a political and trade pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. They targeted corruption and oligarchs as well but failed to see them off. Instead Russia seized Crimea the following year, opening up a war in which more than 10,000 died in Ukraine's eastern provinces. Poroshenko has used martial law to capture international attention as G20 leaders meet in Argentina and EU foreign ministers consider their response next week.
Russian aggression and Ukraine’s belligerent response are understandable but facile lenses through which to judge these events. They contain half truths but distort the longer and deeper sources of the confrontation. Since seizing and annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has not ceased to justify its move by reference to its ancient rule there, the arbitrary way Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, its stagnation under Kiev rule and the preferences of its voters. Under international law the annexation is illegal. But the tension arises from Russia’s fear of encirclement as well as from many Ukrainians’ hopes for a European future.
So far, all the leaderships directly concerned have failed to balance and respond to these conflicting demands equitably and non-triumphally. They should bear these historical forces in mind as they address this latest conflagration. It contains ample evidence of Russian harassment of Ukrainian maritime and commercial interests in the Kerch Strait. A huge new bridge now crosses the sea there, preventing large ships from getting to Ukrainian ports. The arrests breach a 2003 agreement on access to them.
Poroshenko’s resort to martial law gives him profile as a war president while he tries to face down recurrent opposition from the same groups which mounted the Maidan revolt five years ago. European leaders should resist pressure to escalate this dispute. Unless its deeper causes are addressed, it could all too easily be pushed opportunistically into renewed armed conflict.