If you thought that Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine was no big deal, think again. Yesterday, the practical implications of this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty manifested themselves by bringing these two nations to the brink of war. Per the BBC:
The three [Ukranian] ships were sailing off the coast of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, when they were seized.
Russia opened fire, before its special forces stormed the vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.
Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was proposing that parliament back a 30-day martial law – half the length of that recommended by Ukraine’s security and defence council a day earlier.
Here is video of a Russian vessel hitting a Ukrainian tugboat.
This piece by Christopher Miller in the American government-funded news network of RadioFreeEurope does a good job of laying out the timeline that lead to yesterday's events. Per Miller:
Russia launched the opening salvo here in 2016, with its $3.7 billion Crimean Bridge project to link that occupied Ukrainian peninsula with southern Russia across the Kerch Strait — the gate to the [Sea of] Azov. The move led to stern condemnation and sanctions from Kyiv and Western governments. The European Union in late July added six more Russian companies involved in the bridge project to its sanctions list.
In March, with the bridge nearing completion, Ukrainian authorities detained a Ukrainian-registered Crimean fishing vessel for illegally sailing under the Russian flag and arrested its captain and crew in the Sea of Azov — a move one Russian official likened to that of “Somali pirates.”
Since then, Russia has stepped up confrontation in and around the Azov in a big way.
In early May, Russian border guards subordinate to the country's Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly arrested a Ukrainian fishing vessel and its crew in the Black Sea, ostensibly for illegally fishing in what it said was Russia's exclusive economic zone.
This is a territorial cold war that has gone hot (again). Per international law, Crimea is part of Ukraine. Period. Russia stole it, and has faced no consequences yet. Now, Russia is attacking Ukraine because Ukraine still claims land that they never legally lost. This is how wars begin, and it is imperative that we take steps to curb Russia's aggressive actions without escalating this into a larger conflict.
However, that is FAR easier said than done, and right now, all we have to work with is a bunch of boilerplate statements from everyone but the Trump White House expressing grave concern over the situation.
After over 24 hours, Trump finally did make a statement on the crisis, and it was as feckless as you would imagine.
Now, President Trump's overly cozy relationship with the Kremlin is the elephant in the room, and he didn't do himself any favors by tweeting this out about an hour after news broke of the Russian assault yesterday.
On its face, it sure looks like an overt and explicit endorsement of Russia's illegal actions, as it seems like Trump is using this act of war as leverage to get NATO countries to pay up, lest they go the way of Ukraine. In reality, president racist grandpa was just yelling at the TV and the timing was likely coincidental. Hell, he probably didn't even know that this had happened yet since he prefers to get his news via that morning's Fox & Friends in his DVR instead of the most up to date and accurate information from his intelligence agencies.
That didn't stop plenty of self-described Russia experts from coming up with convoluted theories that would get you laughed out of a political science 101 class. Sarah Kendzior, famed online #resistance hero, retweeted this hot take she posted from March that has absolutely no basis in reality.
Russia and Iran are staunch allies. This is the center of the problem in Syria, where Russia’s air force is bombing civilians on behalf of the Assad government while Iran fuels money, resources and various kinds of support to the murderous Syrian regime. Addressing Syria seriously means dealing with both Russia and Iran. Russia needs Syria because it is the only military base they have in the Middle East. The scenario described by Kendzior above means that she believes that Russia would give up its only foothold in the Middle East, along with a close ally, in order to placate Trump so they can fully invade a country it already has immense influence over (and who they have already begun to invade, as Dontesk is another area of Ukraine essentially controlled by Russia).
The Kremlin is known for committing unforced errors, but Kendzior’s proposed tradeoff would be above and beyond their typical stupidity. Not everything that happens in the world has to do with the United States. In fact, most things don’t. The only certain answer to “what is going on?” is “we don’t know.”
Trump will likely do nothing to pressure Russia away from its slow-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it’s difficult to see how less Kremlin-compromised powers like the UK or NATO would either. Are we really going to start World War III with Russia over Ukraine? Probably not, although the lesson of post-World War II is that one should never underestimate the Western war machine’s insatiable desire for (profitable) death and destruction.
This is a delicate situation that looks like it will go Russia’s way. Trump is Trump, the UK is entrenched in a fight with itself over Brexit, and NATO is rudderless without either country’s leadership. Not to mention, Ukrainian President Poroshenko instituting martial law provides another avenue of influence that the Kremlin can use (Ukraine has elections in four months—which are suspended as long as martial law is declared—and Poroshenko is behind in the polls, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how Vladimir Putin could leverage that reality over the Ukrainian president).
A military option is only on the table for folks who either don’t understand the situation (time and time again, studies show that the less likely you are to know where a country is, the more likely you are to want to bomb it) or the kind of people who always suggest a military option (looking at you neocons).
I’m not sure what the right answer is here. Going to war with Russia over Ukraine is literal insanity, but letting Russia violate the sovereignty of nations they claim to have ownership of is a harrowing standard that can only embolden Russia to invade more of Europe. Alienation from the international community is a powerful deterrent that has unfortunately become less powerful as the international community has become less unified around the interests of man and more geared towards the interests of capital in the 21st century. This is very much a developing situation that can go in a lot of different directions, but one thing is certain: the world is a far more dangerous place today than it was yesterday.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.