Small Wars Journal

Why Russia's Seizure of Ukrainian Vessels Matters to the U.S.

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Why Russia's Seizure of Ukrainian Vessels Matters to the U.S.


William McHenry and Adam Twardowski


In late November, Russia seized three naval Ukrainian vessels traveling to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol through the Kerch Strait, which connects Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian mainland. Although the Kerch Strait is in fact shared territory, Russia accused the vessels of violating its territorial waters. For years, Russia has blocked numerous Ukrainian vessels from entering or leaving the Sea of Azov in a broader effort aimed at intimidation. A number of the captured Ukrainian sailors were flown to Moscow, while others were detained by Crimean courts and charged with “illegally crossing the Russian border,” meaning that an end to the standoff is nowhere in sight.


Why does this matter, and what, if anything, should the West do?


First, Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and blockade of merchant's vessels represents a significant maritime flare-up in the standoff between Ukraine and Russia over the latter’s illegal annexation of Crimea. But it’s not clear what Russia’s objectives are here, whether this incident was ordered by the Kremlin, or if it escalated upwards from the trigger-happy local Russian military commanders (the Russian FSB has increasingly been harassing Ukrainian ships that seek passage through the strait). As one expert noted, Russia is using this incident to further “normalize the idea that Crimea is part of Russia.”


With the United States consumed by internal political drama and NATO weakened by internal fractures, Russia may be testing Western reaction to see if tolerance for its misbehavior is higher than it was a few years ago. The Kremlin may also be taking steps to shore up his internal popularity, which had been falling in the wake of very unpopular decisions to gradually raise the retirement age. (Putin has long used the specter of external aggression to divert domestic attention from Russia’s internal problems.) Either scenario could lead to more escalation or a rapid cooling off depending on the outcomes that Putin observes.


Second, Russian behavior in the Sea of Azov demonstrates that Western sanctions aimed at punishing it for the seizure of Crimea and ongoing intervention in eastern Ukraine have failed to deter it. Given the high strategic value Russia places on keeping Ukraine firmly within its orbit, Western policy has not inflicted a sufficiently high cost on Moscow to prevent it from violating international law. In fact, recent research suggests that sanctions on Russia have had mixed results at best in reducing public support for the Kremlin's aggressive policies, and, thus, policymakers should explore other more creative options to deter Putin.


Third, despite the reemergence of “great power competition” as a term in U.S. strategic discourse, the United States and Europe are as strategically unmoored today as they were in 2014 when Russia first dismembered Ukraine and prevented it from integrating into the West. What this means is that although there is greater understanding in the West of Russian anger over NATO expansion in the 1990s, and more recently dangling the prospect of greater European integration over Ukraine, Western policymakers have not yet demonstrated they have the strategic will or political courage to make clear to Russia that its grievances over U.S. policy in the 1990s do not give it a veto over the rights of sovereign nations to conduct their own foreign policy.


What should the United States do?


Russia is counting on the United States and its allies to calculate that supporting Ukraine with additional lethal and non-lethal aid exposes them to unacceptably high risk of escalation with Russia. But the only side this risk serves to constrain is the West. Russia can be deterred if their assumptions about internal Western paralysis over how to respond to Russia are proven wrong. Indeed, as Michael Kofman has argued, Russia “leverages agility and a simplified chain of command” coupled with the slow and predictable re-active actions of the West to weaken the post-World War II international order.


President Trump was right to call off a formal meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina in response to Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian vessels (even though they spoke informally). But this is not enough. Trump should surprise Putin, and perhaps the world, by providing Ukraine with short-term financial support in the form of loans to the ports affected by the crisis, and, in the longer term, the US Coast Guard should expand its program of support to Ukraine’s Navy.


The Trump administration should be mindful of the fragile domestic political situation in Ukraine in the run-up to next year’s elections. In response to Russia’s behavior, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko imposed martial law along its border with Crimea and Russia. While there’s certainly some military utility to this decision, US policymakers should pressure Poroshenko to respect human rights in developing and implementing policy responses to Russian aggression, such as his decision to implement martial law. The regions where Ukraine has imposed martial law are skeptical of the government in Kyiv, and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Russian disinformation efforts. And more importantly, Russia could destabilize Ukraine’s electoral processes by leveraging its influence with these segments of Ukrainian society.


There is little doubt that Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov represents the Kremlin’s further use of grey zone tactics to challenge the post-Cold War European order. To counter these tactics, the United States, together with its European allies, should develop more rapid and creative policy responses, or Russia will feel emboldened to provoke similar crises in the future.

Categories: Russia - Ukraine - Gray Zone

About the Author(s)

William McHenry is an Eastern Europe & Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is the Program Associate for The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia). His work at PONARS Eurasia focuses on connecting scholarship to policy on and in Russia and Eurasia by fostering a community of rising scholars committed to developing policy-relevant and collaborative research. He received his Masters in International Affairs from the American University, School of International Service with a focus on Eurasia, and he holds a B.A. from Linfield College in Political Science. You can follow Will on twitter @wmchenry.

Adam Twardowski is a Washington-based foreign policy analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TwardowskiAK.


From the bottom of our article above:

"There is little doubt that Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov represents the Kremlin’s further use of grey zone tactics to challenge the post-Cold War European order. To counter these tactics, the United States, together with its European allies, should develop more rapid and creative policy responses, or Russia will feel emboldened to provoke similar crises in the future."


a.  Is it the "post-Cold War European order" --  is this what the Kremlin is actually challenging today?  Or:

b.  Is what the Kremlin actually challenging today the U.S./the West's efforts, post-the Old Cold War, to transform (more along modern western lines) and incorporate (more into the U.S./Western sphere of power, influence and control) the outlying states and societies of the world (to include Russia)?   

Matters which may support my such New/Reverse Cold War assertion (the U.S./the West now being the one's doing "expansion;" Russia, China, Iran, the Islamists, etc.; these now being the ones doing "containment" and "roll back").

a.  First, from Major General Linder, et. al's article "The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain:"

"Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia." ) 

b.  Next, from the War on the Rocks article entitled "America Did Hybrid Warfare Too:" 

" ... The last time Russia and the United States grappled indirectly as adversaries in 'the gray areas' during the final phase of the Cold War, it was the United States that put a hybrid 'blend of military, economic, diplomatic, criminal, and informational means' to effective use, notably in Central America. Of course, there were important differences between the character of that confrontation and today, but much about the goals and the means were comparable, only it was the United States that seemed to 'have it down.' ... 

Employed as part of a broader strategy, what hybrid warfare did was allow the United States to carry out open-ended competition and signal certain confidence that the value of protecting the U.S. sphere of interest was greater than any opponent’s interest in upsetting it. After all, it would have served little purpose to test the escalation dominance the United States enjoyed in the hemisphere, say by threatening direct action against Cuba or rattling nuclear sabers. Instead, the method was a low-fear, low-cost, economy-of-force way to manage superpower confrontation that remained well below the threshold that might have provoked a more energetic response."

Thus to ask:  If my explanation above -- as to what the Kremlin is actually challenging today -- if my such explanation above is correct/more correct

(The Kremlin is not challenging "the post-Old Cold War European Order." Rather, the Kremlin is challenging the post-Old Cold War U.S./the West's efforts to transform the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western lines -- and to incorporate these states and societies more into the U.S./the Western sphere of power, influence and control.)

If my such explanation of what the Kremlin is actually challenging today is correct/more correct,

Then how does this change (if indeed it does at all) how we proceed now against the Kremlin; this, to (a) overcome this/these such "containment" and "roll back" obstacles now put before us and (b) achieve our grand "transform and incorporate" political objective anyway/in spite of same?