New conflict: Kerch Strait "engulfed in flames"

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Baku, 4 December 2018 –

Ukraine and Russia have a number of problems that are difficult to solve in accordance with international law. Tensions continue to mount between the two countries, and experts are pessimistic about the unity of the Slavs. An incident in the Kerch Strait added to tension between the two countries. Russia seized three Ukrainian ships and detained their crew members. Three sailors were wounded. They admitted to deliberately violating Russian border. The incident provoked global reaction, with the U.S. European Union, Turkey and other countries urging solution to the dispute. The U.S. and Europe accused Russia. The incident is triggering international tension. What geopolitical consequences may this situation have? Will it affect the South Caucasus? In this article we will try to find answers to these questions.

Trading accusations: Kiev-Moscow standoff in the Azov Sea

Crimea, Donbass and now Kerch are the three main problems that experts blame for growing Russia-Ukraine standoff. The Kerch problem emerged just a couple of days ago when Russia seized three ships of the Ukrainian Naval Force. The units of the Russian Federal Security Service fired on the Ukrainian ships, wounding three sailors. Crew members of the ships were jailed for two months. Kiev gave a harsh reaction. President Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in several provinces. The Ukrainian leader also appealed to the EU members, the U.S. and NATO. Washington and Brussels condemned Russia for the incident, calling on Moscow to immediately release the Ukrainian ships and ensure unhindered access for ships to the Azov Sea. They accused Russia of violating international law.

Moscow still remains patient. Russia refuses to release the Ukrainian ships, and sailors will face trial. Vladimir Putin accused the Ukrainian leadership of deliberately instigating the standoff. The Russian President said Ukraine was acting on a deliberate plan to violate Russia`s territorial waters. This is why Russia treats the incident with great seriousness. Experts say the standoff may trigger a new conflict in the Eastern Europe.

Indeed, the incident features a lot of strange points. Both countries have taken a very touch attitude towards each other. None of the sides wants to make concessions. Ukraine said it is not going to ask anyone permission to sail to and from its port in Mariupol. Russia says the Azov See is open for ships under a bilateral agreement, adding that all vessels that comply with this agreement have unhindered access to the Kerch Strait.

Russia considers Kerch its own territory and controls every ship sailing in the area. Moscow explains that Russian ships accompanies Ukrainian ships to the port of Mariupol this September, and that Ukraine then notified Moscow in a due manner. But now Ukraine behaved inadequately, the Kremlin says.

Kiev naturally denies the accusations and insists that the ships did not violate international law. However, the incident has already caused a mixed reaction from the international community. Donald Trump cancelled his scheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Argentina. Petro Poroshenko appealed to Turkey`s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to close the Bosphorus for Russian warships. The Turkish President remains patient and urged dialogue between Moscow and Kiev.

A closer look at the Kerch incident reveals quite a dangerous scenario that may spread globally. Ukraine-Russia standoff may absorb several superpowers. What should be noted in this context is the sensitivity of the Turkish issue. The point is that Turkey enjoys close relationship with Russia. It is therefore a geopolitically risky move to call on Ankara to take a step against Moscow. Closing the Bosphorus for Russian warships may trigger a serious conflict between the two countries. It should not be forgotten that Russia is powerful enough to retaliate immediately and sharply against any action. It is therefore unlikely that Ankara will heed the friendly Ukraine`s calls. On the other hand, mounting tension between Turkey and Russia is to Washington`s benefit. So a question arises: Who is behind Ukraine`s moves?

Geopolitical context: pressure on Russia from three directions

The situation poses serious geopolitical dangers if considered in the context of U.S.-Russia and EU-Russia relations. Washington is seemingly creating new problems and risk zones for Moscow. In addition to the Black Sea, Russia is being dragged into a conflict in the Azov Sea. The Kerch incident added tension to Moscow-Kiev standoff, and Ukraine is now terminating all treaties with Russia in the wake of the incident. What does it mean? It means that Ukraine is being isolated from Russia. Kiev and Moscow are losing all the ties that bind them.

This process may trigger very dangerous geopolitical scenarios. Russia may be forced to resort to harsher measures in the face of mounting pressure, which will automatically give the U.S. a chance to deploy more military equipment and troops in the region. This will increase Europe`s dependence on the U.S in terms of security and expand the geography of arms race. A broader region may become the theatre of armed conflicts and the geopolitical situation in the entire post-Soviet region may be worsened.

The consequences of the Kerch incident look more dangerous in light of Stratfor`s recent assessment of key developments in 2019. According to Stratfor`s 2019 Annual Forecast, Washington will ramp up pressure on Moscow from different directions by exploiting former Soviet republics in the Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus), South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) and Central Asian countries. In this context, the Kerch incident can be considered as a long-term pressure mechanism against Russia.

These developments bring great concern – which country will next face a problem after the Kerch incident? Provocations in the South Caucasus should not be ruled out. Armenia is the most suitable option for the U.S. in this region. Armenia itself is interested in undermining geopolitical stability in the South Caucasus because uncertainty and instability will guarantee Yerevan`s keeping Azerbaijani lands under occupation.

Armenia will seemingly be made the next theatre of geopolitical games. What will happen after Nikol Pashinyan`s victory in Armenia`s snap parliamentary elections is of particular interest. Armenians may commit provocations against Azerbaijan or Georgia. Russia would naturally react, which in turn would cause another source of tension.

This tension may then spread from the South Caucasus to Central Asia. This would exacerbate U.S.-Russia standoff on the Eastern Europe-South Caucasus-Central Asia axis. Against a background of these forecasts, the forthcoming presidential election in Ukraine is not the only problem that may exacerbate Kiev-Moscow conflict. Petro Poroshenko may benefit from this move. It is obvious that he is supported by the West. Changing the president under such dangerous conditions would be irrational for Ukraine.

The aforementioned global geopolitical context should be taken into account. Since Washington pursues its own interests here then a question arises: Who is right: Poroshenko or Putin? Who will benefit from this situation: Ukrainians or Russians? All this adds to the uncertainty of the situation. The Kerch incident has exacerbated the standoff between Moscow and Kiev, and it is unclear what the next moves of the sides will be. Poroshenko said that Russia may launch land attacks to occupy several Ukrainian regions.

Russia-Ukraine standoff may therefore negatively affect the global geopolitical situation and trigger new conflicts in the post-Soviet region. And it is difficult to predict who will survive.

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