Following the seizure of three Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov in late November, the UK must continue to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Moscow in order to maintain a coherent and long-term Russia deterrence strategy.
On 25 November 2018, three Ukrainian boats and their crew, traveling from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov, were seized after an altercation with the Russian Navy on the Kerch Strait. As ever, attempts to assign culpability are undermined by contested versions of the truth. Moscow argues that the Ukrainian vessels were not following a pre-planned route and that they had not been notified about the boats’ transit, which is why they detained the vessels and their crew. Ukraine claims that it had followed agreed procedure as on previous occasions and that Russia’s actions clearly violated the 2003 agreement, signed by Kiev and Moscow, that established shared control of the Sea of Azov.
Russia’s seizure of these vessels is a clear indication that the war in Ukraine continues to flare up and that sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia have had a limited effect on Russia’s foreign policy risk appetite. The completion of the Kerch Bridge has reinforced the annexation of Crimea as a geopolitical reality, even for those who still argue that de jure it is still Ukrainian territory. It also constitutes another attempt by Russia to destabilise the region and further strangle the Ukrainian economy. Because of the bridge’s 33m height limitation, a third of the vessels traveling to Mariupol – Ukraine’s third largest port – can no longer cross the Kerch Strait.
The UK is one of the few countries that has taken action against Russia’s latest aggression. Previous sanctions against Russia have included the expulsion of four diplomats, after British citizen and former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006. In March 2018, 23 diplomats considered “undeclared intelligence officers” by British Prime Minister Theresa May were expelled following the use of the Novichok nerve agent on Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter Yulia.
These sanctions have been considered heavy on rhetoric but light on substance. Therefore, when the British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson declared that London would send HMS Echo to Odessa for a freedom of navigation maneuver in support of Ukraine, it seemed the UK had upped its game. However, it is questionable what deterrence the deployment of this ship may have against further Russian aggression on the Kerch Strait or in the Black Sea. The HMS Echo is a hydrographic survey vessel designed for amphibious training and mine-hunting, equipped with nothing more menacing than a GPS and a sonar.
Moscow clearly counts on the West’s inaction and does not expect the status quo to change anytime soon. Does this mean that the UK should take a more assertive stance to deter Russia? Despite public condemnation of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, Russia is still considered a major ally for global security, particularly in counter-terrorism and the successful cooperation on Iran’s nuclear deal. Even since the Skripal incident, Theresa May has argued that it is not in the UK’s interest to cut all bilateral relations with Russia. Most recently, despite a clear indication that the UK would take a stronger stance on Russia, many commentators noted that the the 2018 Modernising Defence Programme review was often vague and light on substantial policy.
There are several reasons why maintaining the status quo is the best and only option for the UK right now. Firstly, if London were to increase its military presence in the Black Sea region, there is a chance it would not deter Moscow but backfire by provoking a more assertive response from the Russian side. The greater the tensions between Russia and the West, the higher the chances of misinterpreted actions and unintended conflict. Since 2014, Russia has been bolstering the capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet. The higher the level of military involvement, higher the likelihood of a human error occurring. It could end up in war and potentially spillover to Europe.
Secondly, maintaining UK diplomatic and economic sanctions forms part of a long-term strategy. Russia is starting to feel the effect of sanctions. As part of this strategy, the MoD should continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises to signal that the Black Sea is far from becoming a ‘Russian lake’ and extend a helping hand to partners on the Black Sea, primarily Ukraine and Georgia.
Critics of the UK’s limited response to Russian aggression should be mindful of the dangers of ‘upping our game’, both for the stability of the region and for the success of the UK’s broader, longer-term strategy. This is no less true in light of the recent Kerch Strait incident.
Andrea Gutierrez Cristobal is a postgraduate student of EU Politics at the London School of Economics.