On the one hand, this action may end some of the criticism of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for inaction especially given that Kyiv media outlets have portrayed the voyages of the two ships as having occurred without permission from Russia and in the face of harassment by Russian ships and airplanes.
And on the other, the arrival of the two ships underscores Ukraine’s argument that the Sea of Azov must be recognized as an international waterway open, under the Law of the Sea, to passage by all rather than an inland sea governed as it has been by agreements between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
Mikhail Samus, head of Kyiv’s Center for Research on the Army, Conversion and disarmament, sees the latest Ukrainian move and Russia’s response as having even more greater consequences. According to him, Moscow has shown itself this week as far weaker than in was in 2014, the result of sanctions and its being overstretched.
When the US State Department said last week that Russia was interfering with shipping in the Kerch Straits and Sea of Azov, Samus continues, Moscow was quite restrained in its response. It said it wasn’t blocking anyone but had the right to inspect ships passing near its waters. In 2014, the expert continues, it would have said “’This is our sea and our gulf.’”
But Oleg Pukhartsev, an independent sociologist from Kharkiv, suggests that is an overreading of Russia’s latest remarks. “In 2014, Russia set itself one goal – seizing Crimea with the least possible losses. Now Russia has another task – forcing Ukrainians and the entire world to accept that the peninsula belongs namely to it – and also at minimal cost.”
“For different goals, there is thus different rhetoric,” Pukhartsev says. “There is a time to shout and a time to speak more calmly.”
At the same time, he continues, if Kyiv does organize a naval base on the shores of the Sea of Azov rather than simply announcing that it intends to do so, that will be “a quite strong move” and will give additional weight to the Ukrainian view that the Sea of Azov must be viewed as international waters.
Unless it succeeds in doing so, Pukhartsev says, Kyiv will have little chance of attracting active support from its Western partners.