Russian aircraft fly over the Crimean Bridge that spans the Kerch Strait, a narrow strip that links the Azov and Black Seas, as a Russian ship blocks the strait, after Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships, accusing them of illegally entering its waters in the Sea of Azov. Photo: AFP
Russian aircraft fly over the Crimean Bridge that spans the Kerch Strait, a narrow strip that links the Azov and Black Seas, as a Russian ship blocks the strait, after Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships, accusing them of illegally entering its waters in the Sea of Azov. Photo: AFP

At the G20 summit in Argentina on the weekend, the European Union said it would appropriately deal with Russia’s recent use of force against three Ukrainian naval units off the Crimean Peninsula. It is still not clear how the EU will react to what it considers a new violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Moscow.

At the moment, however, the imposition of new sanctions seems the only card in the West’s hand to counter the creeping Russian militarization of the Black Sea region.

Since Russia’s border forces fired on Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch Strait last Sunday, and imprisoned their crews, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization to send more warships to the area to protect its country.

The Kerch Strait connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, where two key Ukrainian ports are located, and separate Crimea from mainland Russia. The two neighbors (should) share access to these waters in accordance with a 2003 treaty.

The Atlantic alliance has made it clear that it will not meet Poroshenko’s requests. Nato spokesperson Oana Lungescu told Asia Times that “since Russia’s illegal annexation of [Ukraine’s] Crimea in 2014, Nato has substantially increased its presence in the Black Sea.”

NATO’s presence in the Black Sea

Lungescu observed that Nato ships routinely patrolled and exercised in the region. “In 2018, Nato ships spent 120 days in the Black Sea, compared to 80 in 2017,” she said.  “Several Nato allies conduct air policing and regular reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea. We also have a Romanian-led multinational brigade based in Craiova.”

The spokesperson noted that three Nato members – Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey – were littoral states, with their own national capabilities deployed in the Black Sea area. She insisted there was already a lot of Nato in the Black Sea, pointing out that the alliance would continue to assess its presence there.

Furthermore, Lungescu said Nato and its allies continued to give strong political and practical support to Ukraine. “We help Ukraine modernize its armed forces and support the reform of the Ukrainian navy, including the Naval Academy in Odessa. Allies also provide direct training to local navy officers.”

Poroshenko argues that Russia is trying to seize control of the Sea of Azov after its land grab of Crimea and “de facto” occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine through proxy rebel militias. He understands that, despite their growing focus on the Black Sea basin, Nato forces are currently outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s.

The Russians have bolstered military defenses in the Black Sea since 2014. Particularly, they have deployed Bastion and Bal coastal anti-ship missile systems in the Crimean Peninsula, as well as the S-400 Triumf air defense platform. In addition, three Russian frigates and six submarines stationed in the region are fitted with advanced Kalibr cruise missiles.

The deployment of further Nato warships would clearly be viewed as an escalation by the Kremlin, and likely worsen the situation. Moreover, political conditions are not ripe for increasing the alliance’s presence in the Black Sea, given that most European countries say the crisis can be solved only through diplomatic means – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also against a military solution and has even proposed his mediation in the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Stopping Nord Stream 2

Ukraine is a key partner of Nato, but its accession to the alliance would likely be considered by Russian President Vladimir Putin as an act of war. As a result, the stiffening of economic and financial penalties remains the only viable response – in the absence of a diplomatic way forward – to Russia’s progressive undermining of the Ukrainian statehood.

At the G20 summit, European Council President Donald Tusk said he was confident the EU would extend its existing restrictions against Russia’s energy, banking and defense sectors in mid-December.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Friday that Ukraine’s partners were preparing new packages of sanctions against Russia, and that they could be aimed at the Russian natural gas and crude oil sectors. In response to Asia Times’ request for a comment on Klimkin’s words, a EU spokesperson said the bloc’s restrictive measures were decided by the EU member states by unanimity in the European Council, and the EU External Action Service would not speculate on any possible decision or discussion.

The reality is that the EU cannot ban the import of Russian energy resources. Russia is indeed the largest supplier of natural gas and petroleum oils to Europe.

However, the European grouping could target new energy projects linking Russia and Europe. In this respect, the Ukrainians have called on the EU to stop the realization of Nord Stream 2, the planned expansion of a natural gas pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea and connects Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is designed to double the capacity of the existing gas conduit, which stands at 55 billion cubic meters, and Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom aims to complete it by 2019.

The European Commission, along with a number of EU member countries and the United States, is critical of the gas project, which it says undermines European efforts to reduce dependence on energy imports from Russia, besides weakening Ukraine’s position as a transit country for Europe-bound Russian gas.

The EU Parliament is taking steps to block the doubling of Nord Stream 2, but Germany, the EU’s leading power, does not seem to be on the same page.

Putin said on Saturday that he briefed his US counterpart Donald Trump on the Ukraine crisis as he came under pressure over Moscow’s robust foreign policy at the G20 summit.

Putin said he explained Moscow’s position to Trump when the leaders met briefly at a summit dinner Friday. “We spoke standing up. I replied to his questions about the incident in the Black Sea,” Putin told reporters at the end of the summit.

Poroshenko kept up the pressure from Kiev, saying Putin had refused to take his calls since the crisis started.

He said that when the incident happened, he instructed his office to set up a call with the Kremlin leader to say “we are ready for this negotiation to de-escalate … and unfortunately, until now, Putin did not answer my request for a direct phone conversation.”

Poroshenko told France 24 in an interview that Ukraine would try to resolve the standoff diplomatically but insisted Russian forces withdraw from Crimea, and return its ships and sailors “captured illegally in the neutral waters of the Black Sea.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel took Putin to task at length over the naval spat, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron urged him to “de-escalate” the crisis.

‘Brazen contempt’

Merkel used breakfast with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit to voice her “concern” over the tensions in the Kerch Strait off Russian-annexed Crimea.

“Of course, we talked about the situation in the Sea of Azov, because it is important to avoid any aggravation,” Merkel said in Buenos Aires.

Macron raised his concerns with the Russian leader at one of his first bilateral meetings, pressing him “to make the necessary gestures so that there is a de-escalation,” said a French official.

Both European countries are members of the “Normandy Four” group with Moscow and Kiev, set up to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine involving Russian-backed rebels.

Merkel said: “I want to make it quite clear, though, that free shipping to the Sea of Azov must be guaranteed to the Ukrainian coasts and cities. There is a basic contractual agreement from 2003 on this. Russia must comply with this basis.”

Away from the summit, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Moscow had shown “brazen contempt” for a deal “that allowed both Russian and Ukrainian ships free passage.”

Putin, who has praised his navy for defending Russian territory, “provided exhaustive explanations on this incident in the Black Sea, explaining everything in detail, in exactly the same manner as yesterday during his meeting with the French president,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax.

According to a French aide, Friday’s version entailed Putin drawing a map for Macron of the Kerch Strait, to buttress his position that the seized Ukrainian ships had intruded into Russian waters, a claim denied by Kiev.

As for Macron, “the main message that he passed on is really that of a de-escalation,” the aide said.

Far from offering comforting words, Putin said at a post-summit press conference he saw no end in sight to the four-year conflict in eastern Ukraine “as long as the current Ukrainian authorities remain in power.”

“The current Ukrainian authorities have no interest in resolving the conflict, especially by peaceful means,” he said.

Merkel said Germany had suggested a meeting of the Normandy group to discuss the crisis.

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