The Kerch Strait skirmish: a Law of the Sea perspective

The following article was published as a Strategic Analysis piece by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It’s an expansion of some of the themes mentioned in a piece I co-authored with Michael Kofman for the Monkey Cage in the immediate aftermath of the Kerch Strait skirmish.

The November 25 naval skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Kerch Strait was significant first and foremost as an open military confrontation between the two countries’ armed forces. But it also highlighted the fraught legal status of the strait and the Azov Sea, a status that Russia has been exploiting in recent months to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine.

A slow march to confrontation

The confrontation began months before the recent events that brought the conflict to worldwide attention. In March 2018, Ukrainian border guard vessels detained a Russian fishing vessel in the Azov Sea for violating exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”, namely from Crimea. The crew of that vessel remained in detention for several months, until they were exchanged in October for Ukrainian sailors. The captain of the Russian ship remains in Ukraine and is facing prosecution for illegal fishing and “violation of the procedure for entry and exit from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”. Since that incident, Russia has retaliated by detaining several Ukrainian fishing vessels.

In May, Russia also began to regularly hold Ukrainian commercial ships for inspection before allowing them to pass through the Kerch Strait. The initiation of this inspection regime largely coincided with the opening of a road and rail bridge across the strait. Russia claimed that the inspections were required to ensure the safety and security of the bridge at a time when some Ukrainians had publicly threatened to attack the bridge. The delays caused by the inspection regime, together with ship height restrictions caused by the bridge, have led to a 30 percent reduction in revenues at Ukraine’s commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, raising fears that Russia is trying to strangle the economy of eastern Ukraine.

In the same period, Russia also began to build up its naval presence in the Azov Sea, with at least three missile ships based there since summer 2018. Reports indicate that Russia plans to set up a full-fledged flotilla in the Azov in the near future. Ukraine has also strengthened its naval presence in the region, placing several armoured boats in Berdyansk and seeking to expand the base there.

The transfer of ships from Odesa to Berdyansk that caused the skirmish was part of this effort. Ukraine had moved naval ships through the Kerch Strait as recently as September 2018, but these ships were not armed. In that case, the ships were allowed to pass through without incident, although they were closely followed by Russian border guard vessels. The passage of two armoured boats through the strait in late November was thus the first attempt by the Ukrainian Navy to bring armed ships through the Kerch Strait since tensions began to mount and the bridge was completed in spring 2018.

The legal background

The status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is regulated by a bilateral treaty that was signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2003. According to the terms of the treaty, the sea is considered to be internal waters for both countries, and both Ukrainian and Russian commercial and military ships have the right of free passage through the strait. Furthermore, the treaty does not specify any particular advance notice procedures for passage through the strait. Foreign commercial ships are allowed to pass through the strait and enter the sea if they are heading to or from a Ukrainian or Russian port. Military ships belonging to other countries may be allowed passage if they are invited by one of the signatories to the treaty, but only with the agreement of the other signatory. In 2015, Russia unilaterally adopted a set of rules requiring ships passing through the strait to give advance notification to the Russian authorities, ostensibly to assure safety of navigation. These rules have not been accepted by Ukraine.


 

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Circumstances Have Changed Since 1991, but Russia’s Core Foreign Policy Goals Have Not

I have a new policy memo out with PONARS Eurasia. Here’s the first half.


Since the Ukraine crisis, the dominant Western perspective on Russian foreign policy has come to emphasize its increasingly confrontational, even revanchist, nature. Experts have focused on discontinuities in Russian foreign policy either between the ostensibly more pro-Western Yeltsin presidency and the anti-Western Putin presidency or between the more cooperatively inclined early Putin period (2000-2008) and the more confrontational late Putin period (2012-present). In this memo, I argue that Russian foreign policy preferences and activities have been largely continuous since the early 1990s. These preferences have focused on the quest to restore Russia’s great power status and maintain a zone of influence in states around its borders as a buffer against potential security threats. Throughout this time, Russian foreign policy has been neither revanchist nor expansionist in nature. Instead, it has been focused on first stopping and then reversing the decline of Russian power in the late 1980s and the 1990s and on ensuring that Russia was protected against encroachment by the Western alliance led by the United States. However, perceptions of Russian foreign policy during the post-Soviet period among other powers and outside observers have changed markedly as a consequence of a gradual increase in the extent of Russian relative power vis-à-vis its neighbors and especially vis-à-vis Western powers.

The Discontinuity Argument

The argument that Russia’s foreign policy has changed markedly over time comes in two versions. The first version of the discontinuity argument paints a sharp contrast between the pro-Western foreign policy followed by Russia in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin with the anti-Western foreign policy preferred by Vladimir Putin after he took over the presidency. In this reading, Russia under Yeltsin was in the process of transitioning to democracy and generally supportive of Western foreign policy initiatives despite some occasional disagreements. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has been committed to countering U.S. interests in the world, especially when it comes to the spread of democracy.

This narrative overstates the continuity of Russian foreign policy under Putin while understating continuities between the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, Russian support for the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which included putting pressure on Central Asian states to accept U.S. bases on their soil and a 2009 agreement to allow for the transit of military goods and personnel to and from Afghanistan through Russia, is downplayed in favor of a focus on Russian opposition to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Serious disagreements during the Yeltsin period, particularly regarding Western interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, are seen as aberrations in agenerally pro-Western Russian foreign policy, while Russian involvement in the early 1990s in internal conflicts in neighboring states such as Moldova and Georgia is ignored altogether.

The second version of the discontinuity argument runs counter to the “good Yeltsin, evil Putin” narrative. It focuses on the very aspects of Putin’s first two terms as president that the first narrative elides. This narrative highlights differences between Russian foreign policy in 2000-2012 and the period after Putin’s return to the presidency. Here, Russia is described as a status quo power until the Ukraine crisis and a revisionist power thereafter. The episodes of cooperation in the 2000s are contrasted with Russia’s confrontational statements and actions after 2012. Meanwhile, the confrontational aspects of Russian foreign policy during Putin’s first two terms in office, such as efforts to divide the Euro-Atlantic alliance over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, to force the United States military out of Central Asia after 2005, and to highlight the consequences of Western recognition of Kosovo independence in 2008, are downplayed. The result is a picture of Russian foreign policy under Putin that gradually slides from cooperation with the United States and Western institutions early in his presidency to all-out confrontation in recent years. While this trajectory is largely accurate in terms of the overall relationship, I argue that it is less the result of changes in Russian foreign policy goals and more a consequence of changes in Russia’s relative power in the international system.

The Argument for Consistency in Russian Foreign Policy Goals

While the two readings of post-Soviet Russian foreign policy presented above are at odds with each other, they both overstate the extent of discontinuity. In reality, with the possible exception of the very beginning of the Yeltsin period, Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent throughout the post-Soviet period. The main driver of Russian foreign policy both under Yeltsin and under Putin has been the effort to restore respect for Russia as a major power in world affairs. From the Russian point of view, this respect was lost as a result of Russia’s political and economic weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evidence for this lack of respect in the 1990s included disregard for Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement to Central Europe and NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. When NATO chose to admit Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1997, Russian politicians condemned the move as a betrayal of Russian trust and a sign that Western leaders and military planners still perceived Russia as a potential military threat. Russian leaders also felt betrayed and humiliated by the lack of consultation by NATO and Western state officials during the process leading up to the decision to bomb Serbia to stop its ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. They argued that NATO enlargement and the Kosovo War showed that Russia had become so weak that its opinion no longer mattered in determining world reaction to regional crises. Further confirmation of this point of view came in the early 2000s, when Russian opinion was ignored in the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The response, both in the 1990s and under Putin, was to seek to restore Russia’s great power status while maintaining a zone of influence in states on Russia’s border as a buffer against potential security threats. As early as 1993, Russia’s Security Council promulgated a foreign policy concept that included “ensuring Russia an active role as a great power” as a key foreign policy goal and asserted a special role for Russia in the former Soviet republics.


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The Kerch Strait naval battle — Here’s what you need to know

Michael Kofman and I published a short analysis of the naval battle in the Kerch Strait on the Monkey Cage. Here’s a sampler.


The Nov. 25 skirmish between Russian Border Guard and Ukrainian navy ships in the Kerch Strait has escalated tensions not just between the two countries, but also between Russia and NATO.

Two Ukrainian navy small-armored boats and a tugboat attempted to cross into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. A Russian Border Guard ship rammed the tug. Russian forces eventually captured all three boats, holding them in the Crimean port of Kerch. 

This crisis kicked off months ago 

In March 2018 Ukraine seized a Russian-flagged fishing vessel, claiming that it had violated exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine.” Although the Russian crew was released, the boat remains detained in a Ukrainian port. Subsequently, Russia began to seize Ukrainian vessels for inspection, starting in May when a fishing vessel was detained for illegally fishing in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

A new Russian-built bridge linking Crimea to southern Russia is at the center of Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Kerch Strait. The bridge opened in May, and its low clearance height cut off many commercial ships and reduced revenue at the Mariupol port by 30 percent. Russia has imposed an informal blockade on the remaining maritime traffic, with ships often waiting more than 50 hours to cross, and Russian authorities insisting upon inspecting the cargo. This has substantially raised transit costs — and has been slowly strangling the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.


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NATO’s Trident Juncture Exercise as a Deterrence Signal to Russia

I have a new article examining the impact of the Trident Juncture NATO exercise currently ongoing in Norway, published by the Kennedy School’s Russia Matters project.


This week, NATO forces are engaged in the largest military exercise the alliance has organized since the end of the Cold War and the first major Western exercise in decades to take place in the Arctic region. To be held in Norway through Nov. 23, the Trident Juncture exercise is designed to improve NATO’s ability to defend member states and to strengthen the alliance’s credibility as a deterrent force against potential aggression. While the scenario does not mention any particular adversaries, the exercise is clearly aimed at bolstering NATO defenses against Russia in the Nordic region. While the political impact will be minor by comparison to any potential permanent troop deployments, the military lessons gleaned by the exercise’s participants promise to be significant.

The exercise marks NATO’s third time holding the biennial Trident Juncture and differs from the previous two iterations in both size and focus. To begin with, it involves personnel from all 29 NATO members—a first—plus close partners Finland and Sweden. This in itself is significant: While the two Nordic states have regularly participated in NATO exercises in recent years and have invited NATO forces to take part in exercises on their soil, their participation in as large and politically prominent an Article 5 exercise as Trident Juncture highlights how far both have gone since their political decisions to enhance defense cooperation with NATO. The 2018 exercise is not only much bigger than the 2014 and 2016 iterations, which also focused on preparing NATO’s rapid reaction forces to counter Russian aggression, but differs significantly in its primary focus on field exercises instead of command post exercises.

There are 50,000 total participants, including 20,000 from the ground forces, 24,000 from naval and marine infantry forces, 3,000 from air forces, 1000 logistics specialists and 1300 command personnel.  The United States has provided the largest contingent, including the Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group, the Iwo Jima Marine Expeditionary Strike Group and over 18,000 troops. Preparations, including deployment of forces to the exercise area, began in August. The active phase of the field exercise began on Oct. 25 and will continue through Nov. 7, to be followed by a command post exercise in mid-November.


You can read the rest of the article here.

Russian views on U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty

I have an explainer article about Russian perceptions of U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…


Despite Russian urgings, national security adviser John Bolton is insisting that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty prohibits all short-range and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles, both nuclear and conventional, as well as systems that can be used to launch such missiles. As a result of the treaty, neither Russia nor the United States can deploy missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or 310 to 3,420 miles. Since this is a bilateral treaty, other countries are not bound by these constraints.

Since the U.S. government announced its withdrawal plans, Russian officials and experts have weighed in on what this means for Russia and how to respond. Here are five things to know.

1. Russians see the INF treaty as giving unfair advantages to the U.S.

Russian experts and officials have long argued that the treaty that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed with President Ronald Reagan in 1987 was disadvantageous — first to the Soviet Union and then to Russia. Russia gave up its ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles without extracting any restrictions on U.S. sea- and air-launched missiles. That’s significant, because the vast majority of Russia’s nuclear weapons are land-based, whereas the U.S. bases much of its nuclear force on submarines. The Kremlin believes this has allowed the U.S. to dominate the world’s oceans with its Tomahawk cruise missiles, and has left Russia vulnerable to a U.S. sea-launched attack.

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Midrats: Russia’s Red Banner Year

 

I was back on the Blog Talk Radio show Midrats this week, talking about Russian foreign policy, the military, its relations with the United States and China, and the like. The recording is now available on the show’s website. The show description is as follows:

Episode 457:Russia’s Red Banner Year

From its largest exercise since the end of the Cold War, to Syria, to a revival of covert direct action and  intermediate nuclear weapons as an issue – Russia continues to claw back her place on the international stage.

As we approach the last quarter of the 2018 calendar year, what message is Russia trying to give the rest of the world and what should we expect through the end of the decade?

 

Review of Bettina Renz’s new book on Russia’s Military Revival

I wrote the following book review for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. These Russia briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program feature some of the top experts and are worth reading cover to cover. The most recent issue also includes articles by Richard Connolly, Michael Kofman, Nazrin Mehdiyeva, and Andrew Monaghan.


It can be reasonably argued that over the last decade, the Russian government has had no higher priority than restoring its military as a potent force that can both strike fear into its adversaries and be capable of being used to achieve state goals in an armed conflict. In Russia’s Military Revival, Bettina Renz sets out to explain the reasons for this focus on rebuilding its military. In doing so, she moves well beyond the common narratives that focus on improvements on hardware and training or, less commonly, on strategy and doctrine. Although an overview of all of those things is provided, the real focus is on the purpose of the revival, rather than its technical details or the means with which Russia is planning to fight.

In writing the book, Renz seeks to correct three misguided assumptions about the “timing, purpose, and scope” of Russia’s drive to rearm: 1) the idea that the drive to rearm signals a “paradigm shift” in Russian policy, 2) the notion that rearmament is being driven by “an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy”, and 3) the view that “Russian military capabilities now rival those of the West” (p. 11). The book is devoted to disproving these assumptions. In doing so, Renz shows that since Russia became an independent country in 1991, its government has consistently sought to maintain, use, and whenever possible strengthen the military instrument of its power. She also shows that despite significant improvements in capabilities in recent years, the Russian military remains far weaker than those of the West and Russia’s military power is not sufficient to “guarantee victory in all cases” or even to “create substantial new opportunities for the achievement of objectives that were not achievable before” (p. 12).

Renz focuses the first chapter of the book on countering the idea that Russia is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. She argues instead that Russia’s foreign policy has four main drivers: great power status, sovereignty, imperial legacy, and multilateralism. Most critically, Russian foreign policy is driven by an effort to restore its great power status and to have that status recognized by the international community and by the leading powers in the international system. This recognition is necessary for Russia to achieve its second goal, of having a right to sovereignty in its decision-making. Russian understandings of sovereignty differ somewhat from those common in the West. Most importantly, “The Kremlin believes that its sovereignty to conduct internal affairs without outside interference can only be preserved if it can also pursue an independent foreign policy abroad” (p. 34). This linkage of the internal and external components of sovereignty, together with the fear that its adversaries are infringing on its sovereignty through regime change efforts, has resulted in a belief that a strong military is needed to secure Russian sovereignty. The belief that a sphere of influence is a sign of being a great power, together with an understanding of sovereignty as pertaining to great powers but not necessarily to smaller states, encourages Russian political elites to pursue the legacy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union by seeking to dominate its former territories in the “near abroad,” though generally without asserting direct territorial control. Finally, the Russian leadership sees the solution to problems in the international sphere in great-power multilateralism, a sort of renewed version of the 19th century Concert of Europe wherein the great powers work together to ensure international peace and security.

It is Russia’s perceived inability to convince other major powers, and especially the United States, of the benefits of this type of international system that has led its leaders to focus increasingly on ensuring their country’s security through unilateral means, including through the revival of its military and security forces, expansion of their use domestically and especially abroad, and the development and refinement of non-military and quasi-military means designed to achieve Russian foreign policy goals. The rest of the book is devoted to describing these developments, beginning with chapters on the reform and strengthening of the Russian military and on militarized components of other Russian government agencies.

No book is perfect, and these two chapters are arguably the weakest part of this one. The chapter on military reform begins promisingly, with a discussion of the origins of the reform effort, and generally seeks to contextualize the strengths and weaknesses of the reform effort. In doing so, unfortunately, Renz tends to overstate the constraints on Russia’s ability to carry out the reform and to strengthen its military. While this is not the place for a full discussion of these issues, I would note that the Russian military has in the last five years largely solved its manpower problem through a combination of decreased deferments for conscripts and improvements in recruitment of professional soldiers. Recruitment should become even easier in the coming decade due to an increase in the number of draft eligible young men in the population.

Similarly, while economic problems and international sanctions have created difficulties for the production of new weapons over the last five years, Russia has largely weathered the storm without suffering an economic collapse and has found alternative sources, both domestic and foreign, for components that it used to import from European states. Finally, Russian military planners have impressed in how they have worked around the constraints imposed by defence industry gaps and financial limitations. For example, the Russian Navy has dealt with the shipbuilding industry’s inability to provide it with new large ships in a timely manner by developing a strategy that focuses on the installation of small numbers of highly effective cruise missiles on a large number of relatively small ships. These ships can then be used to deter attack by threatening the adversary from the relative safety of enclosed seas where the ships can be protected by shore-based defence systems. This is not to negate the author’s larger point that Western analysts face the risk of overstating Russian military prowess, simply to highlight that it is very difficult to achieve precision in the balance between overstatement and understatement.

The chapter on Russia’s “second army” – the various agencies and ministries other than the Ministry of Defence that have armed formations under their command – suffers from a very different flaw. It falls into the descriptive trap, wherein the author spends numerous pages describing the various agencies and the forces they control, but without explaining their purpose. The reader would have been better served had the chapter cut out much of this description in favour of a more detailed set of explanations of how these agencies promote the themes that connect Russian military revival and Russian foreign policy, as spelled out in the rest of the book.

The last two chapters return to the book’s core strengths, discussing situations in which Russia has used its military forces and developments in Russian military thought in the post-Soviet period. In both chapters, as in the book as a whole, the dominant theme is continuity. Renz shows that Russia’s recent use of military power abroad comes from largely the same foreign policy sources as its actions in the 1990s. Similarly, she shows that the concept of warfighting that has been labelled hybrid warfare in the West has largely grown out of existing concepts, both in Russia/the Soviet Union and in the West, that have been extended based on new developments in technology and military thinking in recent years. The key point, though, is that these concepts do not provide a fool-proof winning formula for Russian aggression in the near abroad or elsewhere in the world.

Overall, Russia’s Military Revival makes a convincing argument that Russia is not a ‘revanchist’ state that, “enabled by better military capabilities, is seeking to forcefully expand the country’s influence in the CIS region and to confront the West in a bid for domination” (p. 157). Instead, the key takeaway from this well-written and cogently argued book is that Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent since the early 1990s, but that the change in Russia’s relative power vis-à-vis its main competitors in the international sphere has resulted in the changes in foreign policy behaviour that we have observed over the last decade.