The Azov Sea Incident

By now the major Western media outlets will have reported on the incident in the Azov Sea in which Russian forces fired upon and captured three Ukrainian Navy craft conducting FONOPS in what is apparently now disputed waters. Today the president of Ukraine has asked the Ukrainian parliament to approve his request to impose martial law, ostensibly as a precaution to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive posture against a possible Russian escalation. It’s not clear yet if this will be approved or what it means for those of us who live in Ukraine.

I don’t have much of anything to add to the analyses already swirling in the media. I don’t know what it means for me or for my Ukrainian friends, but I do have some thoughts about the situation from my perspective as an interested third party. I’ve also heard from many of my family members who are trying to understand what’s going on through the haze of media hysterics.

First, it’s easy to forget in the West but war with Russia isn’t some theoretical possibility: Ukraine is currently at war with the eastern region of the country which has attempted to secede from Ukraine in a 2014 uprising that was facilitated, equipped, and in some cases even fought by Russian operators, though Russia firmly denies any involvement. Despite a formal ceasefire in 2015, the fighting continues to this day with both sides exchanging artillery, small arms, and rocket fire. Ukrainian Army and rebel forces continue to die on that front almost daily. So it’s not a question of “what if Ukraine and Russia go to war” but “what if the war escalates from border skirmishes to an all-out invasion?”

I don’t know the answer to that question. When Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008 they did so quickly and decisively, even bombing the capital Tbilisi until the Georgian government relented. I don’t think Russia wants more Ukrainian territory, I think they want to have a weak and Russia-aligned state on their border. Ironically, ever since the events of 2014, Ukraine has moved decisively to the west, with serious talks of joining NATO and the EU; I suspect any escalation of the fighting would be limited to reversing this trend and getting Russia-friendly political figures in power.

It must be said that Ukraine’s military capabilities are vastly inferior to the forces Russia brings to bear. If Putin were willing to commit enough forces, I’m sure the Russian military could defeat the entire Ukrainian armed forces within a month. But so what? As both the Soviet and NATO armies have learned in Afghanistan, vast military superiority can only kill one’s enemies, not pacify them. Russia has no need of Ukrainian territory, and an outright invasion and occupation of Ukraine would only deepen Russian economic and political isolation, to say nothing of the inevitable bloody insurgency which would surely follow.

For this reason, I’m not worried about Russian tanks rolling down Khreschatik street any time soon. My fear for Ukraine is that they play into the hands of their enemy and end up doing more harm to themselves. They’ve made some progress towards modernization and Westernization, but if they lose momentum or if opportunistic Ukrainian politicians take advantage of the situation to enrich themselves, the Ukrainian people will suffer.

There is so much potential in this country, unrealized after decades of systematically corrupt and incompetent leadership, arguably at least since the time of the Tsar and perhaps before. As a foreigner it’s hard to get a clear picture of the current political situation, but my sense is that this movement towards US and EU sphere of influence over the last five years is less a matter of principle and more the present leadership engaging in pragmatic realpolitik in the hopes of holding power. It wouldn’t take much of a nudge from the Russian side to shift this balance in their favor, which is what led to the Yanukovich presidency and the 2014 revolution.