Thwarting Moscow’s latest escalation

Moscow’s nearly five-year war on Ukraine took a dangerous turn on November 25. In the international waters of the Black Sea, the Russian navy first rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat that had asked for permission to enter the Straits of Kerch en route to the Sea of Azov, then attacked two small Ukrainian warships that were sailing with the tug, capturing all three ships. At least six Ukrainian sailors were wounded and the three vessels are now detained by the Russians.

Heretofore, the Kremlin has maintained the fiction that Russian military units and weapons are not involved in the war in Ukraine. But on November 25, in broad daylight, Russian ships attacked Ukrainian forces. This is a new provocation, the latest in a dangerous game that the Kremlin launched last April, when it began to “inspect” commercial ships going to and from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk in the Sea of Azoz. Since then, the Russian navy has subjected well over 150 ships to inspections. As a consequence, shipping out of the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk has dropped by at least half. This has weakened Ukraine’s economy in Donbas, where Moscow had been conducting a not-so-hidden war since April of 2014. 

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Moscow’s open attack on the Ukrainian ships was designed primarily to prevent Kyiv from increasing its naval presence in the Sea of Azov. Over the course of the year, the Kremlin has enhanced its presence in the Sea of Azov. It now has eight naval vessels in this small sea. To protect its large naval advantage there, the Kremlin first blocked passage and then attacked Ukrainian ships.

But Moscow’s confrontation with the Ukrainian ships was also designed to provoke Ukrainian fire. The Kremlin wanted a Ukrainian “provocation” to which they could “respond.” But Ukraine did not return fire. For those who follow Kremlin policy in its neighborhood, this looks dangerously familiar.

Moscow committed provocations against Georgia for years: military overflights, random missiles landing in Georgian territory and, of course, firing across the internal demarcation line between parts of Georgia hosting Russian troops and the rest of Georgia. Such firing from South Ossetia led to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008.

Since it failed to provoke Ukraine on November 25, the Kremlin is now seeking to bury the incident. It is stressing its peaceful intentions, calling on the West to “restrain Ukraine” and seeking to avoid any Western reaction beyond censure in support of Ukraine.

It would be a serious mistake for the West to follow this Kremlin script. The West’s weak reaction to Moscow’s aggression in Georgia and Crimea made it easy for Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch his hybrid war in Donbas. He thought that there would be little cost. The sharp Western sanctions that followed the downing of the Malaysian airliner by a Russian missile in July of 2014 and introduction of regular Russian army forces into Donbas in August of that year – where they defeated the Ukrainian forces at Ilovaisk – served as a barrier against further, major Russian escalation for over four years.

Moscow’s extension of the war to the Sea of Azov and now the Black Sea is another, important escalation. The more so in that this was a very public use of regular Russian military power. If the West accepts the Kremlin version that there is nothing troublesome about this military strike, the Kremlin will be emboldened to consider deploying its regular military again against Ukraine. That would be a disastrous signal. It might encourage Moscow, for instance, to consider using its air force next time.

It is essential for US and European security to take strong steps against the Kremlin’s latest escalation. Stopping Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine is the smart way to prevent provocations against our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. 

The Allies should consider measures in three areas.

First, there should be more U.S. and NATO Black Sea patrols, especially in its eastern waters, so that Moscow understands that further aggression against Ukraine does not enhance the military balance of forces in its neighborhood.

Second, the U.S. and the EU should introduce additional sanctions against Russia. Studies indicate that sanctions to date cost Russian 1 to 1.5 percent of Gross National Product (GNP) per year. We should raise this cost. Specific sanctions could be taken against Russian shipping – forbidding any Russian ships to enter U.S. or EU ports and/or to deny port entry to any ship that stops in Russian ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov (except, perhaps, those carrying oil from Kazakhstan). Or sanctions could be taken against a major Kremlin financial institution such as Sberbank or VTB. Or the Trump Administration should announce its intention to sanction any firms participating in any way in Nord Stream II.

Finally, the U.S. and willing Allies should enhance Ukrainian military capacities against the new Kremlin theat. President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE courageously approved the provision of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, something that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's self-interest is at odds with safe coronavirus policy Progressive youth groups issue demands for Biden ahead of general election Obama: Robust coronavirus testing and monitoring the key to reopening country MORE was too timid to do. Now that Moscow’s navy is part of the war, the US should provide surface to ship missiles and, since Moscow may be emboldened to use its air force, Washington should likewise consider providing surface to air missiles as well.

Given Europe’s focus on Brexit, now is a time for U.S. leadership. Washington should begin an active process of consultations in NATO and with the EU to find the right mix of measures from all three areas.  We know that averting our eyes from Kremlin aggression does not inspire better behavior. Imposing penalties will either change that behavior or further weaken the Russian economy and better prepare us for future Kremlin provocations. In either case, it is the preferred policy option.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-2006.