Russia tried to turn the meandering day trip of an aging Ukrainian van into a crisis

Russia apparently tried – and mostly failed – to stage a crisis in the Sea of ​​Azov on Thursday and Friday.

The seemingly deliberate provocation, involving an ancient Ukrainian naval ship and loads of Russian propaganda, came as Moscow continued to build troops around Ukraine for a possible invasion in the coming weeks or months.

The Sea of ​​Azov lies north of the Black Sea and is connected to this larger body of water by the narrow Kerch Strait. Ukraine lies west of the sea. Russia is in the east.

Ukraine’s access to the Kerch Strait was not a problem until Russia captured the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in early 2014. Russia now controls both sides of the strait and requires Ukraine’s permission before ships can cross. This gives Moscow the power to sever the sea connections between northern and southern Ukraine at will – despite a 2003 treaty that gives Moscow and Kiev joint control of the waterway.

At the end of 2018, Russian forces and their crews attacked, captured and temporarily detained three Ukrainian naval ships entering the Sea of ​​Azov from south to north. The brazen seizure prompted several countries to impose sanctions on Russia.

This week’s crisis initially looked like a possible repeat of the 2018 crisis. Transportation of the Ukrainian Navy Donbas– a 400-foot-long former Soviet ship born in 1969 – entered the Sea of ​​Azov via the Kerch Strait shortly before the 2018 incident. On Thursday Donbas sailed from the Ukrainian naval base in Mariupol, on the western edge of the Sea of ​​Azov, and migrated south.

That is what the Ukrainian government has declared Donbas was just in training. The Kremlin insisted Donbas fled into the Kerch Strait without Moscow’s permission – a claim Kiev denied.

“This is a new provocation,” said a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry. “This is not a one-off, individual incident. This is a series of provocative actions carried out on our borders. “

In an obvious attempt to plug a bottle Donbas and possibly creating a legal pretext for the seizure of the ship, the Russian government announced on Thursday or Friday artillery drills over the Sea of ​​Azov, setting out no-go zones that covered 70 percent of the body.

The US embassy in Kiev has blown Russia’s harassment against the ship and its crew. “The Donbas has every right to sail [Ukrainian] Water ”, the message tweeted. “Russia’s false accusations are part of its ongoing campaign to deflect attention from its latest aggressive, provocative actions.”

The stage was set for an international drama starring two long-war countries. Russian ships intercepted Donbas But luckily for everyone, the Russians didn’t try to board the tired old ship. Donbas turned and returned to Mariupol.

The embassy rightly pointed out that the rules Moscow imposed on Kiev for access to the Kerch Strait depend on Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and definitely do Also violate the 2003 treaty and a number of international standards. “New, illegal restrictions in the Kerch Strait and in the Sea of ​​Azov – another act of aggression against [Ukraine]“Tweeted the message.

If Russia chooses to expand its war against Ukraine, for example by rolling a tank army through eastern Ukraine, it could first seek a confrontation that it can cite as a justification for an attack. A crisis at sea is a classic trigger.

That is, the world has evaded a bullet when Donbas sailed home with no gunfire. But don’t fully celebrate just yet. The Kremlin has not loosened its grip on the Sea of ​​Azov. And the Russian army remains ready to invade.

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