Our already stressed world did not need the emergence of a new hotspot of tension, especially in Europe. In fact, trouble erupted before the end of the centenary celebrations of World War I, which was largely a European war.
The new hotspot which developments reflected on the G20 Buenos Aires summit and forced US President Donald Trump to cancel his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the Kerch Strait at the end of Azov Sea between Russia, Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Russian border guards shot at three Ukrainian ships and detained 24 crew members. Russians have said that the ships had trespassed into their territorial waters, a charge denied by the Ukrainians who showed relevant maps in their defense and warned of Russia’s expansionist designs.
However, Russia’s volleys of accusations continued. It blamed the Ukrainians for causing the crisis in order to allegedly revive Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s failing prospects in next year’s elections. Thus, Russia accused Petro Poroshenko of whipping anti-Russian sentiment in his bid to win the elections.
There is weakness and passivity of the West versus the obdurate policies of Russian President PutinHazem Saghieh
For their part, the Ukrainians have urged the NATO to send in warships to the region and declared a state of emergency and took a set of financial measures against Russians living in their country. Ukraine has also stopped all Russian men, between the ages of 16 and 60 years, from entering the country.
Meanwhile, Moscow has announced the deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles to northern Crimea, which it had annexed in 2014, and said it plans to build a missile early warning radar station there. After seizing control of the peninsula, Russia has built a 19-kilometer long bridge linking to it.
Ukraine, which talks about economic siege and about Russian expansionist intentions, had, after Crimea was annexed, begun building a wall which has not been finished. It seems its high cost has prevented completing it.
If it’s true that European military intervention is unlikely as confirmed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one cannot rule out the possibility that the NATO would reinforce its military presence in the Black Sea, especially after its Bulgarian and Romanian members in the aforementioned region have expressed their concerns over Putin’s policies.
What strengthens the most pessimistic scenarios is that the agreement signed between Moscow and Kiev in 2003 over control of the Azov Sea had left a lot of sensitive issues vague. After the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, this ambiguity has turned into a direct source of danger, particularly after Russia imposed its unilateral military presence in that region.
Why has this happened? Certainly, there are the complicated historical relations between Russia and Ukraine and that witnessed some of their most violent chapters during the Stalinist era.
Ukraine, the agriculturally rich country which was once called “breadbasket of the Soviet Union” and whose peasants were traditionally known for their independence and dedication to the land, suffered a major famine because of Moscow’s policies in 1932 when they were asked to double the quantity of wheat output. Some historians estimated the victims of this famine to be as high as 5 million, leaving a very deep stain on Ukrainian memory against Russians in general.
However, the historical background is a possible but not the only factor in play. Here we must look into the populist nationalism that is on the rise across the globe today and which is threatening democracy on one hand and destroying healthy international relations on another.
There is another factor that is just as important and it’s the West’s weakness and passivity versus the obdurate policies of Russian President Putin who is acting like there is no impunity when it comes to his intentions and concerns related to Russia’s military force.
Would “this war continue for as long as the current Ukrainian authorities remain in power,” as Putin has stated? Are we going to have a new flashpoint that could be triggered by a vested interest?
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.