Ukraine is strengthening its military presence in the Azov Sea and by deploying additional forces to the area as a counterbalance to an increasing Russian presence in the region.
Reuters reports that Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, Viktor Muzhenko, says Russia has been steadily expanding its military assets beyond the fighting in the Donbass region and is now openly reinforcing its military presence along Ukraine’s borders through “nakedly aggressive actions against ships sailing to Ukrainian ports.”
The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine is where the Russian-backed insurgency is centered.
“All those actions that are being taken in the Azov Sea region, are elements of building up our presence in this region for an adequate response to possible provocations by the Russian Federation,” Muzhenko told Reuters, noting that the Ukrainian military has deployed more air, land, sea and artillery forces to the region.
“The Azov Sea, a strategic arm of the Black Sea where Russia and Ukraine share the coastline, has become a flashpoint this year,” Reuters reported. “Ukraine says Russia is preventing scores of vessels from reaching Ukrainian ports through spurious inspections and detentions.”
Breitbart notes further:
The Azov Sea lies between Russia and Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. The Russians build a bridge from Russian territory to Crimea that cuts through the Kerch Strait, forcing Ukrainian ships coming from the port city of Mariupol to pass the Russian bridge and Russian authorities to travel almost anywhere.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has warned the Kremlin to stop “harassing” ships in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait and provided Ukraine with American patrol boats, arguing that Russia intends to weaken Ukraine’s economy.
Moscow reportedly claims Ukraine may try to blockade Crimea, a suggestion Kyiv denies.
Analysis: The Trump administration is right in its assessment that Russia’s naval actions in the Azov are meant to harass Ukraine-bound ships and disrupt the country’s economy. Other analysts have offered similar descriptions of Moscow’s intent.
The questions now become, at what point will the harassment become intolerable for Kyiv and when that point is reached, what is Ukraine prepared or capable of doing about it?
By turning up the heat on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is betting he can do so without getting substantial pushback from NATO or the United States outside of what has already been done — the imposition of sanctions against Moscow.
Is he right? Probably. There isn’t any situation we can think of where the U.S. and NATO would risk going to war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine. The country has historically fallen within Moscow’s zone of influence and during the Soviet years, Ukraine was an industrial and agricultural powerhouse. Plus, there are elements within the country that are sympathetic to Moscow, hence the existence of rebels (and some Russian troops, no doubt) who are fighting in the Donbass region.
Outside of some limited military assistance, the U.S. and NATO aren’t going to do much else to assist Ukraine, despite the existence of an agreement (the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances) signed in the early 1990s in the immediate post-Soviet period by the U.S., Russia, and the UK to provide joint security to the country in exchange for agreeing to surrender all nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. The Brookings Institute noted:
A key element of the arrangement—many Ukrainians would say the key element—was the readiness of the United States and Russia, joined by Britain, to provide security assurances. The Budapest memorandum committed Washington, Moscow and London, among other things, to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country.
Russia violated the agreement when it invaded and then annexed Crimea in 2014. The Obama administration did little other than imposing sanctions; the Trump administration has gone somewhat further by providing small naval assets and anti-tank weapons for the depleted Ukrainian military. But that’s about it.
The U.S. and Britain did not agree to “defend” Ukraine, per se, but one could make an argument that “security guarantees” go beyond simply providing lethal aid to an outmatched military. Still, the Ukrainian situation has implications beyond the region has everything to do with the Budapest Memorandum.
You know who is likely watching the Ukrainian developments? North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
He has seen the U.S. (under Obama) dither in its security guarantee to Ukraine and pull out of the nuclear agreement (under Trump) with Iran. It’s going to be difficult to get him to believe that a security guarantee made by one American administration will be honored sometime later by a subsequent administration.
There are differences. China would most likely honor any such commitment because Beijing would not allow an adversary to occupy a country along its border. Also, the U.S. is not interested in invading North Korea and has every interest in pursuing a nuclear-free and united (or at least peaceful) Korean peninsula. Russia also benefits from a non-nuclear North Korea, though Moscow has played Pyongyang off the U.S., Japan, and South Korea in the past.
In any event, the writing is on the wall for Ukraine: Kyiv should not expect much more military assistance from the U.S. and the West than it’s already getting. And Russia is safe in assuming that NATO wants no part of defending Ukraine.