The events in and around the Kerch Strait over the last five days are a stark reminder of two things: the central role of Ukraine in the relations between Russia and the West, and the misleading notion of a “frozen conflict.”  

It has become apparent how quickly a new cycle of confrontation and violence can erupt in and around conflict zones. The tension in the Azov Sea had built up in recent months but failed to gain the international attention it deserved and escalated dramatically this week. Individual EU member states (such as Germany and France), the EU, and international organizations (including NATO and the UN), have been scrambling to find an appropriate response; one that would stop Russia from escalating the situation further while also demonstrating support for Ukraine.

Gwendolyn Sasse
Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, EU enlargement, and comparative democratization.
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The legal situation is clear-cut: Russia has once again broken international law—this time, by blocking the access of Ukrainian ships to the Sea of Azov. Over twenty Ukrainian soldiers were captured, at least three were injured, and the first have appeared in a Russian court in Crimea. Moreover, Russian troops have concentrated and moved in close vicinity of the border with Ukraine.

Thus, Russia has gone beyond the annexation of territory in Crimea and is now claiming the Kerch Strait as national waters. By doing so, Russia is violating at least two legal foundations regulating the access to the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and a 2003 bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreement in which both countries assured each other unhindered access to the Azov Sea. Similar to the annexation of Crimea 2014, Western powers have been confined to watching the events from the sidelines without finding an effective response—so far.

The first reactions were high-level diplomatic talks and emergency meetings at the level of the EU, NATO, and the United Nations, coupled with calls for moderation and deescalation addressed to both Russia and Ukraine. These are sensible first steps in a volatile setting and, contrary to some of the commentary in the Western media, do not equate with misjudging where the aggression originated.

The Normandy Format would be the most suitable framework within which to conduct talks. This group of four—Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France—was set up to oversee the implementation of the Minsk Agreement in eastern Ukraine.

Despite not having fulfilled the expectations on the Minsk Agreement, the Normandy Format has remained the only functioning communication channel at the level of heads of state and government. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far apparently ruled out negotiations in this format on the latest events. Instead, he has talked on the phone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

Other options on the table are new EU sanctions and military support through a NATO presence in the Azov Sea. The EU Foreign Affairs Council on December 10 is likely to consider new targeted sanctions against individuals close to Putin. This would be the easiest way to show that the EU does not carry on as if nothing has happened.

Even if no agreement materializes, at least the consensus inside the EU on maintaining the existing sanctions regime, which has appeared weak at times, is likely to be strengthened.

Demonstrating military support of Ukraine and sending NATO ships to the Azov Sea would most likely have a more immediate effect on the situation on the ground. It could help to deescalate by changing the balance of power, but there is also a risk of further escalation.

Extreme crisis situations inadvertently also reveal a lot about underlying perceptions and biases. The fact that Ukraine enacted martial law (in force since Wednesday, for thirty days) upon the initiative of Poroshenko has attracted significantly less attention in Western reporting and policymakers’ reactions. This is symptomatic of the widespread hesitation when it comes to critically engaging with Ukraine while it confronts Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and now in the Azov Sea, where the country sees its access to the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk blocked. 

A discussion of the implications of martial law in Ukraine does not have to distract from Russia’s role in Ukraine from 2014 up till now. On the contrary, the two things are inextricably linked, and not addressing one or the other would be the wrong approach.

Even with parliament’s revisions to the presidential decree that reduced the time period from sixty to thirty days, limited its applicability to 10 regions in the south-east, and adjusted its scope, it remains an exceptional measure that freezes Ukrainian politics, enhances the role of the president, and potentially disrupts the everyday life of Ukrainian citizens.

The president’s initiative is a means to bring the severity of the events to the level of international attention. In particular, in its original version, his decree was also linked to political calculations, as it allowed for the possibility to postpone the presidential elections in March 2019—where, judging by opinion polls, his chances are currently slim. His image as a war president managing an extreme situation as best as anyone could is his best bet at staying in power. From now on, Ukrainian domestic politics will be shaped even more by the rhetoric of war.

The situation in the Azov Sea remains highly volatile, even though both Russia and Ukraine ultimately cannot have an interest in a full-out war. A Western response is necessary to this latest breach of international law by Russia. It is most likely to come in the form of further offers to negotiate and targeted additional EU sanctions. But these are short-term measures that don’t amount to a long-term strategy on how to deal with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Gwendolyn Sasse is a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), Berlin.