Thanks to Russian thuggery, the Sea of Azov is no longer obscure geography and the world confronts an ugly little navy war with diplomatic and legal consequences for nations that value freedom of navigation.

In last week’s column, I described the Sea of Azov as “a nook of the Black Sea lurking east and north of the Crimean Peninsula,” the Ukrainian territory Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

Russia continues to violate Ukrainian sovereignty by waging a slow war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin claims Russian military forces aren’t in eastern Ukraine. Russia merely supports ethnic Russian separatists who are threatened by fascists in Kiev. However, the faux-separatists are proxies trained and financed by Moscow. Russia used the same gambit when it seized Crimea.

In late summer 2018, Russian security forces (not faux separatists) began harassing Ukrainian ships transiting the Kerch Strait. The strait lies between the Crimean Peninsula and Russian Federation territory to the east. It connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Russia has built an enormous bridge across the strait, which connects Russian territory to occupied Crimea. The bridge opened in May 2018.

Closing the Kerch Strait effectively blockades Berdyansk and Mariupol, two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov’s north coast.

In 2015, while visiting Crimea, Vladimir Putin himself said he hoped there would be no “full-scale direct clashes” between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

But on Nov. 25, Russia’s war against Ukraine escalated as verifiably Russian coast guard forces under the command of the Russian Federal Security Service intercepted (rammed says Ukraine), boarded and seized two verifiably Ukrainian naval vessels and a Ukrainian tugboat. The 24 Ukrainians on board the ships became Russian prisoners.

The Kremlin claimed the Ukrainian vessels had conducted “dangerous maneuvers” in Russian territorial water.

Putin’s Kremlin specializes in adding complex twists to blatant falsehoods. There is no evidence the Ukrainian ships did anything but try to avoid being intercepted. Russian territorial water? To buy that you must accept Russia’s illegal seizure of the peninsula. However, the strait is an internationally recognized waterway open to transit by commercial shipping and naval vessels. Kerch is comparable to other straits around the globe, like the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran routinely threatens to close Hormuz to shipping, but to do so would violate freedom of navigation and constitute an act of war.

Defense One reported that Kiev had informed Moscow that its naval vessels would transit the strait. Moreover, the Russians who boarded the Ukrainian ships were special operations commandos.

The Ukrainian ships were making a legal transit. As recently as 2003, Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s right to transit the strait. The 2003 treaty made the strait and Sea of Azov shared territory.

Like invading Crimea, the Russian seizure of Ukrainian ships is a calculated act of war. Russia has now anchored an oil tanker in the main sealane beneath the bridge, blocking all ship traffic.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said ramming a Ukrainian vessel was an “act of armed aggression” and that Russia had violated “the freedom of maritime traffic.” He also cited specific articles in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that “bans the obstruction of peaceful transit across the Kerch Strait.”

Several media commentators have pointed out that the Kremlin’s escalation challenges Western European leaders and the Trump administration. Will the West aid Ukraine? Will Russia face harsher economic sanctions? Bringing Ukraine into NATO is highly unlikely, but even threatening to do so would punish the Kremlin’s piracy.

America’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley immediately condemned “yet another reckless Russian escalation” and said the Kerch Strait seizure would “further sour” U.S.-Russia relations.

And it well should.

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.

Austin Bay

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