Russia To Put Captured Ukrainian Sailors On Trial As European Lawmakers Call For Sanctions

Three days after Russia fired upon and seized a pair of Ukraine Navy gunboats and a tugboat there has been no de-escalation in the tensions between the two countries. Both sides are posturing for a potential conflict and the U.S. and its European allies are coming to terms once again with the reality that Russia will continue to take whatever it can without being checked. 

There are increasing calls in Europe to place sanctions on Russia for what appears to be an outright and planned provocation.  Russian President Vladimir Putin denies this was the case, talking to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel by phone on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, saying Russia will present evidence to support their claims regarding the incident. Ukraine is urging for sanctions as large parts of the country are about to come under Martial Law for at least 30 days and Ukraine military forces spin up for a potential all-out conflict. 

In his call with Merkel, Putin reportedly said he was “seriously concerned” about the Martial Law decree and told Ukraine to avoid any “reckless acts.” Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko says he has been unable to contact his Russian counterpart.

Meanwhile, Russia is holding Ukrainian sailors – conflicting reports put the total number at either 23 or 24 – captive after its forces fired on their boats, boarded them, and seized control. The vessels are now docked in the port of Kerch with Russian guards standing watch over them while components are stripped from them. Some of these sailors were filmed making confessions that they were part of a pre-planned Ukranian provocation with those videos being plastered on Russian state-run television. The Ukrainian government denounced the confessions outright saying they were clearly forced. 

Those sailors may be staying under Russian lock and key for some time as a Russian court in occupied Crimea has demanded authorities continue to detain at least some of the sailors for months so that they can potentially face a trial, ostensibly for violating Russia’s borders. More hearings are scheduled and it is quite possible that all the sailors may end up facing a similar fate. 

The U.S. has condemned Russia’s behavior and has stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty through all its formal diplomatic channels. Other members of NATO, including the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as the alliance’s leadership, have also denounced Russia’s aggressive actions. 

At the same time, Ukrainian President Poroshenko said that U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo told him that the U.S. would provide whatever support needed to Ukraine to maintain its sovereignty, including military support. What this means exactly, if indeed it is true, is still unclear. 

Furnishing Ukraine with offensive weaponry, a policy that the U.S. government has already begun to pursue, is one thing. Actually backstopping its military with a hard U.S. combat capability is another. The latter of which would be a drastic escalation in America’s involvement in Ukraine-Russian hostilities.

We are also now getting our first images of the damage done to the Ukrainian gunboats. Reports vary, but some say the ships were fired on by a Russian border guard vessel and a Su-30 multi-role fighter. 

As the geopolitical drama is playing out, the U.S. has flooded the area with persistent reconnaissance flights over Eastern Ukraine and around the northern edges of the Black Sea. American intelligence and surveillance aircraft have conducted routine operations in the area to monitor the situation since Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. NATO has also increased its presence in the region in recent years, establishing an air policing mission based in Romania and deploying additional ground forces to the area.

Video of a convoy of Russian Bal anti-ship missile transporter-erector-launchers has also hit social media. Apparently, the weapons were headed near toward the center of the Kerch Strait. 

The Bal coastal defense system employs a version of the Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile. The Kh-35 is roughly analogous to the American made Harpoon anti-ship missile. The significance of this, beyond optics, is being overplayed in the media as the entire Black Sea is a super anti-ship missile engagement zone

Russia has arrayed throngs of sea-, surface-, and air-launched anti-ship missiles in and around Crimea, with the Black Sea Fleet being especially heavily equipped for the anti-ship role. The Bastion-P coastal defense system, which is more capable than the Bal, was one of the first new systems to deploy to Crimea after Russia seized it in 2014.

The stark reality is that it’s really a numbers game. If Russia wants something sunk in the Black Sea it will be sunk regardless of its defensive capabilities.

Any foreign navies that might look to come to Ukraine’s aid and challenge Russia’s total control of the Kerch Strait face difficulties in just getting into the region at all. Per the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, countries that do not have a Black Sea border can only deploy a certain total displaced tonnage of warships into the body of water at any one time and those ships can only remain there for a set period.

The United Kingdom has reportedly dispatched the survey ship HMS Echo, which is armed only with a pair of 20mm automatic cannons and various machine guns, to the Black Sea, prompting criticism from members of parliament who say the auxiliary ship is hardly a show of force. The Royal Navy’s major surface combatants have unfortunately suffered serious readiness issues in 2018, which may be a factor in the decision. There is no word yet if the United States plans to send any ships into the area.

HMS Echo., Royal Navy

Russia seems disinclined to back down regardless. Putin’s domestic approval ratings have precipitously dropped recently, which may have been one of the driving factors in why the altercation in the Kerch Strait occurred in the first place. There is also the possibility that Russia was trying to force Poroshenko, whose popularity in Ukraine is also flagging, to make concessions in the lead up to Ukranian presidential elections in March 2019. The Kremlin also has the benefit of the West, especially the United States and key members of NATO and the European Union, being distracted by a host of domestic political issues themselves. 

All told, it seems likely that the atmosphere in the region will remain particularly tense in the immediate future as all the parties involved continue to assess their options.

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