Why Russia’s Latest Aggression Against Ukraine Could Be Aimed at Boosting Putin’s Sagging Approval Ratings

COMMENTARY Europe

Why Russia’s Latest Aggression Against Ukraine Could Be Aimed at Boosting Putin’s Sagging Approval Ratings

Nov 27th, 2018 3 min read

Commentary By

Alexis Mrachek @AlexisMrachek

Research Assistant, Russia and Eurasia

Will Thatcher

Fall 2018 member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation

The timing of the latest incident is not a coincidence. Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom

Key Takeaways

Russian Federal Security Service border patrol boats opened fire Nov. 25 on three Ukrainian maritime vessels.

Regarding the new conflict, Ukraine claimed that Russia was “openly aggressive” and that its behavior completely disregarded international law.

To boost his rating and distract Russian citizens from the poor socioeconomic situation at home, Putin likely called for aggressive military actions.

Russian Federal Security Service border patrol boats opened fire Nov. 25 on three Ukrainian maritime vessels—two navy artillery ships and a tugboat—in a standoff in the Kerch Strait, a narrow body of water connecting the Black Sea and Azov Sea.

Russia struck two of the vessels and wounded six crew members in the process. The Russians then boarded and seized the three Ukrainian naval ships.

The incident followed an earlier clash that morning between the Russian Federal Security Service border patrol boats and the same three Ukrainian vessels.

According to Kyiv, a Federal Security Service boat purposely rammed the Ukrainian navy tugboat, which was attempting to reach the Kerch Strait and enter the Azov Sea, causing damage to the tugboat’s “engine, outer hull, and guardrail.”

These acts of aggression took place as the three Ukrainian ships approached the Kerch Strait en route from Odesa, on the coast of the Black Sea, to another Ukrainian port in Mariupol, on the coast of the Azov Sea.

Mariupol is a key trade port for Ukraine, and the only route by which to reach it by sea is through the Kerch Strait. Thus, the strait is vital to Ukrainian shipping lanes.

Under the 2003 Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, the Kerch Strait and the Azov Sea are shared territorial waters between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukraine has had difficulty accessing the strait since 2014 because of Russian control on either side.

Regarding the new conflict, Ukraine claimed that Russia was “openly aggressive” and that its behavior completely disregarded international law.

Russia, on the other hand, says Ukraine was at fault, accusing it of trying to initiate a conflict situation in the region.

Despite what Russia claims, it’s important to remember that Russia is the aggressor, and Ukraine is the victim. Russia is the one that invaded Ukraine in 2014, illegally annexed Crimea, sparked a war in the eastern Donbas region, and now has begun an unnecessary conflict in the Kerch Strait.

But the timing of the latest incident is not a coincidence.

Just two months ago on Sept. 27, the U.S. Coast Guard signed off on providing two patrol boats to Ukraine within the next year.

And on Nov. 21, Britain announced it would provide Ukraine even more troops than promised back in September, as Ukraine continues to face Russian aggression.

Then, on Nov. 22, the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, held its first reading of new constitutional amendments, which will provide Ukraine full membership in the European Union and NATO.

These events are reason enough for Russia to retaliate, but there is another reason that has likely contributed to the outburst in the Kerch Strait: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.

Ever since Russia passed unwelcome pension reforms earlier this year, Putin’s approval rating has been at an all-time low. To boost his rating and distract Russian citizens from the poor socioeconomic situation at home, Putin likely called for aggressive military actions in the Kerch Strait.

That worked four years ago. In 2013, Putin’s approval rating stood at 54 percent. Then, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, his rating skyrocketed to 83 percent.

Later this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Group of 20 will be holding a summit at which President Donald Trump and Putin are supposed to meet. However, Trump should not give him the privilege.

In refusing to meet, it would make clear to Putin that Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine are unlawful. More than half of the Azov Sea’s coastline lawfully belongs to Ukraine, and Russia must provide access to Ukraine’s ships.

Russia’s aggressive actions in the Kerch Strait are unwarranted. As Russia continues to break international law, it must learn that eventually it will be forced to suffer the consequences.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal