Russia’s Attack on Ukrainian Naval Ships: Context and Implications

On November 24, I lit a candle to commemorate the deaths of at least four million Ukrainians in the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932–1933 which the UN recognizes as a genocide of the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. The next day, I awoke to the news that Russia had attacked several Ukrainian naval ships.

On November 25, Russia attacked three Ukrainian naval ships in international waters in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Several Ukrainian sailors were injured. The ships were seized, and all 24 sailors have been captured and transferred to prison facilities in Moscow. The Russian parliament, Duma, has indicated their intent to give state awards to the border guards responsible for the attack. The Ukrainian ships had been travelling from Odessa to Mariupol and were meant to pass through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov, but they were stopped before they could reach it.

This recent attack is part of a larger context. In 2014, after the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital) which resulted in the flight of corrupt, pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, off the coast of which this attack occurred. Although Crimea is internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, Russia still lays claim to it. A few months later, war broke out between Ukraine and Russia in the Donbas region of Ukraine, with Russia claiming to support separatists within Ukraine, though most leaders of the separatist movement are actually Russian. This war has been going on for five years now, and despite it being largely overlooked in the West, it has been destructive. As of April, there have been 10,000 casualties, 2,800 of which were civilians.

This attack in the Black Sea is particularly significant as it was an overt Russian attack against Ukraine, unlike their seizure of Crimea and their presence in Donbas. And rather than denying involvement, the Russian government is constructing a victim-blaming narrative. Furthermore, in May of this year, Russia finished construction of the Crimean Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russian territory across the Kerch Strait, thereby cementing their hold on Crimea.

Thus, these attacks have implications for Ukrainian sovereignty and for international freedom of the seas. The blocking of the Kerch Strait cuts important eastern Ukrainian ports, like Mariupol and Berdyansk, from access to the sea, thereby undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and economic capabilities. Additionally, by laying claim first to Crimea and now to the Sea of Azov, Russia appears to be attempting to reconstruct its empire and set the path for annexing Ukraine. By attacking in international waters and claiming that the ships entered their waters, Russia is impeding maritime freedoms.

However, these attacks are only one instance of Russia’s undermining of freedom of the seas. Russia has been boarding and inspecting ships in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Such actions have affect other countries as well as Ukraine. The attack raised worries in Turkey, whose foreign ministry stated, “As a country sharing a Black Sea coast, we underline that passage through Kerch Strait should not be blocked.”

Russia’s actions in Ukraine appear to be part of a larger trend of international interference, from the 2008 war in Georgia to the 2016 U.S. election meddling which is currently under investigation. In this way it seems that Russia is returning to Cold War tactics and making a bid to restore the sort of imperialist power they had under the Soviet Union.

Given that this attack is part of the larger war on Ukraine, the question is why did this attack happened now? I began this article by talking about how the Day of Commemoration of the Holodomor was the day prior, and this is unlikely to be a coincidence. Additionally, earlier this year, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople approved Ukraine’s request for an independent church, undermining the Russian Orthodox Church’s claim on Ukraine. Also, the construction of the Crimean Bridge is relatively recent and serves to enable the blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.

On November 26, Ukraine’s parliament approved President Petro Poroshenko’s proposal to impose martial law in ten regions in Ukraine for thirty days. Although Russia claims this is a political move on Poroshenko’s part, the martial law will not interfere with the future election in late March of next year, as that will occur after the thirty days. Poroshenko also called for the support of NATO, saying, “We hope that NATO states are prepared to send naval ships to the Sea of Azov to support Ukraine and provide security.”

Although NATO has condemned Russia’s actions and increased warship patrols in the Black Sea, they are less intent on preventing the Sea of Azov from essentially becoming a Russian-controlled lake and have released a statement “call[ing] for calm and restraint.”

I don’t feel calm. I reject restraint. I think about the stories I’ve heard about older family members during the Holodomor, about my great-grandfather holding tightly to my grandfather’s hand in the streets because the famine was so terrible there were rumors of cannibalism, about my great-grandmother pawning her family ring for a bunch of noodles (and they were the lucky ones!) I think of the stories I hear from family members of my generation, cousins who faced gunfire when they protested in 2014, cousins who were forced to flee Donbas as their neighborhoods were bombed (and I guess they, too, were the lucky ones. They’re not dead, at least.)

In 1932, New York Times journalist Walter Duranty denied the existence of the famine and was awarded a Pulitzer. Back then, the West wanted to simply ignore the problems in Ukraine.

I’m not saying that now is exactly like then. In fact, I’m determined not to let that be the case. And to do that, we must stay informed and stay active. Heroyam slava!

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