Azov incident Russia continues its hybrid war against Ukraine

Azov incident : Russia continues its hybrid war against Ukraine

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What was the unfolding of this new episode between Russia and Ukraine? After the events of 25 November in the Kerch Strait, and the capture of three Ukrainian ships by the Russian navy, the UN Security Council met in emergency on Monday. 

The facts, as reported by the witnesses to the events, are extremely simple: three Ukrainian ships and their crews – two military patrol boats and a tug – were attacked by the Russian fleet. A first ship was deliberately and violently hit by a Russian warship (we hear the captain order to crush this ship). The other two came under fire from the Russians. Then the FSB commandos seized the three Ukrainian buildings. Some may think that Russia has a right of nature over everything in its immediate and remote environment, but the facts are stubborn and if we consider them in good faith, in a spirit of truth, There is little room for honest questioning about the responsibilities of this “incident”. There is no doubt that there will be a number of people to relay the most far-fetched hypotheses, such as when the Crimean military manu was reattached to Russia, the outbreak of a hybrid war in Donbass or the strike by a missile of a Malaysia Airlines airliner, flight MH 17 of July 17, 2014, another “incident” which resulted in 298 casualties.

In this case, this aggression must be put into perspective. Let’s start with the geopolitical coordinates of the question. The military annexation of the Crimea, apart from any international legality, means that both sides of the Kerch Strait, the Kerch Peninsula on the one hand (the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula) and the Tamen peninsula on the other hand (Russia), are now under the political and military control of Russian power. But the Kerch Strait controls the passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov. If the Sea of ​​Azov is probably absent from the mental representations of many French and Western Europeans, its area is not negligible: about 30,000 km², a size equivalent to that of Belgium. Despite the armed conflict opened in March 2014 between Russia and Ukraine, and the secession of part of the Donbass under the control of Moscow, the northern facade of the Sea of ​​Azov is still under the legal and effective sovereignty of Ukraine. It has two economically active ports, with relatively deep water (9 meters): Berdyansk and, even more, Marioupol (about twenty kilometers from the Donbass front line). These two ports account for one fifth of Ukrainian exports. Since 2014, Moscow controlling both shores of the Kerch Strait, the Sea of ​​Azov is virtually a Russian “lake”.

In the last four years, Berdyansk and Marioupol have seen their port and economic activity dwindle. If we take the example of Mariupol, the former “Donbass Gate”, the traffic has increased from fifteen million tons of goods to less than six today. This port accounted for 80% of Donbass’s exports and the chaos in which this region has sunk, between endemic war and economic disaster, has had serious repercussions on the activity of Mariupol. The construction of the “Crimean Bridge” between the two shores of the Kerch Strait aggravates the situation. Inaugurated on May 15, 2018, this bridge is nineteen kilometers long and thirty-three meters high: it blocks this strait and, potentially, closes the comings and goings between the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov. Currently, it is the height of this bridge that interests us (33 meters). Most Ukrainian vessels carrying grain are too high to go under the bridge. On the other hand, the merchant ships that are attached to the Russian ports of the Azov Sea (much less active because of the shallow depth of their waters: 4.6 meters) do not have the same constraints. In short, the Kerch Bridge is another way to suffocate Mariupol and Berdyansk).

What could be the consequences of this escalation of November 25?

By method, it must be assumed that any escalation can cross new thresholds and result in open conflict; Let us make this quotation from René Girard: “By wanting to reassure, we contribute to the worst”. In truth, has the war only stopped between Russia and Ukraine? The Kiev agreements (2015) are not respected, the 400 kilometers of border between the two countries are always open to the roundtrips of men, weapons and equipment between the part of Donbass passed under the control of Moscow and his associates on the one hand, Russia on the other. It does not happen a day or so without the ceasefire being violated. Without even mentioning the international act of brigandry committed in Crimea, the Donbass remains an open wound. The long-term registration of this situation and the formation of a military-mafia “quasi-state” contribute to the acceptance of the idea of ​​a territorial dismemberment of Ukraine. Beyond this goal, Vladimir Putin has a lever of power to hinder the rapprochement between the Euro-Atlantic and Ukraine, to destabilize the domestic situation in this country. Finally, the use of this territory, as a basis for a future offensive, should not be excluded .

In the immediate future, it must be noted that the present “incident” does not constitute a thunderbolt in a summer sky. Since the opening of the Kerch Bridge, various analyzes have highlighted the worsening of the situation in the Kerch Strait, the potential for conflict and the repercussions at sea in Azov. The security of the Kerch Bridge, built in the absence of any legal basis since the annexation of Crimea is illegal, serves as a pretext for long and systematic checks of Ukrainian buildings (three days and more, both outward and return) ), causing them to lose considerable sums (a range of $ 10,000 to $ 15,000 per day off). In the intention and in the facts, the maneuver aims to suffocate the Ukrainian ports of the Sea of ​​Azov as well as the southeastern part of the mainland Ukraine, located between the Donbass and the Crimean peninsula. In the same vein, Moscow is tightening its grip on the Sea of ​​Azov, in defiance of international law and the Russian-Ukrainian agreement of 2003 which established joint control of these waters. In this case, the legal quibbles that the Russian side puts forward have no more ethical and legal value than the law in the Soviet era. This, it should be remembered, was based on the Marxist idea that any system of law is nothing but the momentary transcription of a balance of power. Another example of continuity between the “Russia-Soviet” Cold War era and the “Russia-Eurasia” post-Soviet era. Let us recall here that Russia, a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum (1994), co-guarantees the Ukrainian borders.

However, it is necessary to see further than the only tightening of the Russian influence on the Sea of ​​Azov. The strengthening of the Russian naval naval presence in the Black Sea backyard, with the transfer from the Caspian Sea of ​​two buildings armed with Kalibr missiles – cruising missiles the scope of which contravenes the 1987 Interim Nuclear Forces Treaty. (violated by Moscow) -, gives additional means for a possible offensive on Mariupol and the southeastern part of mainland Ukraine. The idea could be to establish a “land bridge” between Donbass and Crimea, a geostrategic imperative that would translate into the field the political-ideological goal of a “New Russia”, on lands north of the Black Sea, at the expense of a dismembered Ukraine. Let us not forget the speech made by Putin after the annexation of Crimea, the themes of the “New Russia” and the “Russian World”, heavy threats to neighboring countries (28 March 2014). In the months that followed, the Russian maneuver came up against the Ukrainian military resistance in Donbass and the diplomatic front constituted by the Westerners. However, do not think that it was a simple ideological rush, without tomorrow.

What the Western reaction should be in this situation? Can the West still “give ground” to Russia without risking its credibility at the international level?

Many Westerners have an excessively material and technical vision of the strategy: they insist on Russia’s lack of means: in our view, there is a Russian “grand strategy” both embraced and encompassed by vision of the world certainly frustrated but effective. The two key questions of a grand strategy are: Who are we? What do we want? Then come the ways and means. A strong belief in the value of its cause as well as tactical audacity can partly compensate for deficiencies in the strategy of means. And Russian leaders are well and truly convinced of the moral and warrior inferiority of Westerners, especially of Europeans. In the long run, we can say that inequality in the “correlation of forces” (to use an expression of Soviet strategists) would take over, the situation evolving in favor of Westerners. This is not wrong but in the meantime, only human and material damage! Not to mention that the worst can happen. Should we therefore rely on a future ordeal?

Nevertheless, Westerners have not been inactive since 2014, as evidenced by the reinsurance measures provided to the Baltic States and Poland, the decision to equip NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force (RIF) with spearhead “(the advanced point of this FRR), the redeployment of an American armored brigade in Europe and the organization of exercises in areas and countries under the threat of a hybrid war. Subsequently, the establishment of NATO light infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe (eight staffs) and the rotation of four “battle groups” (about 4000 men) were negotiated within NATO . Confirmed at the Warsaw Summit (8-9 July 2016), all of these reinsurance measures are therefore aimed at strengthening NATO’s posture of defense and deterrence (the “advanced presence”) on the Baltic- black Sea. These measures are implemented and they are accompanied by maneuvers that include the sending of Allied troops to the Baltic States, particularly exposed to a helping hand by Russian forces. Just recently, the organization of a major military exercise in Norway, with the participation of the Swedish and Finnish armed forces (excluding NATO), gave an idea of ​​the level of resolution and preparation (see Exercise Trident Juncture, October-November 2014).

The guiding principle on the Western side is that Russia must be deterred from military adventurism at the same time and maintained the possibility of negotiating an exit from this situation (a kind of new Harmel report: “Deterrence and dialogue”). . As a result, the NATO-Russia Partnership Agreement of 1997 is still considered valid, with the NATO-Russia Council meeting again (every eight months and no longer every six months). As a result, there is still no plan for heavy infrastructure in Poland and the Baltic states. The Polish proposal to open a base for Americans (“Fort Trump“) remains unresolved. To summarize the thesis conveyed by the supporters of a form of appeasement, Putin, under the influence of bad Eurasian advisers and followers of neo-sovietism, would have won: the Russian president having returned to reason, it would be necessary give him time to retropedalize and therefore extend his hand (see the presence of Putin in Paris, to celebrate November 11, 1918, even as Bolshevik Russia signed a separate peace with the Central, March 3, 1918, in Brest -Litovsk). If we take as a starting point the Minsk-2 agreements (February 2015), it is more than three years that we hang on to this fable. The perpetuation of the conflict in Donbas, even at a low level of intensity, even more its possible revival in the Sea of ​​Azov, reduce it to nothing. If the good sense and the imperatives of the strategy require the maintenance of one or more channels of communication with Moscow, it remains that we are well engaged in a new cold war. The perpetuation of this situation, let alone its aggravation, would call into question the validity of the NATO-Russia Partnership Agreement, and the limits imposed by the Allies on the establishment of infrastructures in Central and Eastern Europe.

Finally, NATO and its member states can not neglect the south-eastern flank of Europe and the Black Sea basin. This is a field of confrontation other than the Baltic Sea, where regional conflict could break out and grow. As things stand, the measures adopted, with a reduced deployment of resources in Romania, are not up to the challenges. For example, it is important to consider hybrid warfare scenarios, at the expense of the Ukrainian port of Odessa: in 2014, the Russians took control of four Ukrainian gas platforms whose security could be the pretext for measures asphyxiating the Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea, accounting for 80% of this country’s exports. The excessive militarization of Crimea also opens up greater possibilities of intervention in Moldova or Georgia.

In the longer term, Moscow intends to use Crimea to deploy a strategy of denial of access (so-called “A2 / AD” strategy for Anti-Access / Area Denial), ie a strategic “bubble” aimed at making the Pontic Basin a Russian sea, closed to other powers (the Black Sea has an area of ​​420,000 km²: it is not an inland lake). These strategic dynamics raise the question of Turkey and its attitude. Member of NATO, engaged in the parallel process of Astana (Moscow-Tehran-Ankara) on the Syrian theater, Turkey is primarily concerned by the situation in the Black Sea. A reversal of the balance of power would have repercussions on its security, not to mention the sensitivity of some of the opinion to the Crimean Tatar question and the fact that its ships regularly frequent Ukrainian ports, including at sea. Azov.

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