A few days after the fifth anniversary of Euromaidan -- the wave of demonstrations that kicked off in Ukraine in November 2013 -- vessels belonging to the Russian Coast Guard opened fire against three Ukrainian Navy ships, according to Ukraine's military, that were trying to pass through the Strait of Kerch.
Ukraine said the firefight ended with six of its servicemen wounded and Russian Special Operations Forces capturing the vessels, along with their crews of 23.
The captured ships and crews were then transported to a nearby Russian base.
The clash presents a dangerous new escalation in a conflict that has caused thousands of casualties and deaths since the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent fighting that erupted in Eastern Ukraine.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted that Russian troops were present in Crimea, Sunday's hostilities are the first time that conflict has openly and undeniably taken place between Ukrainian forces and operatives flying the Russian flag since 2014.
The attack is the latest example of Russian aggression outside of its own borders. This year alone, that includes:
- The possible signal interference in the Arctic that prompted Finnish air navigation to issue a warning to air traffic;
- Warning of live fire exercises, causing the closures of areas in the Norwegian Sea and in the Baltic Sea;
- The Salisbury nerve agent attack that was connected to Russia in the UK government's official report.
The timing of all this raises questions over Russian motives. In the short term, the upcoming G20 meeting in Buenos Aires -- which could have spurred dialogue between Western leaders and Putin -- might now become a show in which Putin takes center stage and bolster support at home.
Putin's popularity has dropped significantly recently. A public conflict with external powers, Ukraine and Western countries could prop up his image as protector of Russian interests.
The escalation also might have expressed Russian frustration over losing a main channels of influence in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church received the Eastern Orthodox Church's full recognition, or an autocephaly, thus removing the church from Moscow's rule.
In the long term, Ukraine is moving towards its parliamentary elections in October 2019. This attack, together with follow-up activities yet to be seen, could offer one avenue for the Kremlin to interfere with the elections -- and their results.
From a regional perspective, the attack against Ukrainian military vessels must be seen in this context. The Strait of Kerch -- with its recent bridge and considerable Russian military assets nearby -- allows slow strangling of a region in the Ukrainian government's hands between Crimea and South Eastern Ukraine. Both areas have fallen under occupation and non-government rule.
The latest Moscow provocation and its blatant disregard for international law must face unified international condemnation and punitive action. The international community cannot accept the further bending of international law and warped rules of the road that Putin keeps trying to establish.
Ukraine is now much better prepared to defend its interests than in 2014. But with the EU bogged down by the Brexit debacle and the US suffering its own internal problems since the midterm elections, who will lead the charge for a proper response to Russian aggression?
A proper response must consist of more than just harsh words and expressions of deep concerns. Further sanctions should be imposed on elements of the Russian economy and society that enable this aggression.
Ukraine should receive support in its full integration with the West.
Ukrainian forces also should be given military support, information sharing between allies, and training and exercises alongside NATO troops.
The US should consider enacting legislation, such as the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018.
Without firm action with real consequences for Russia, Moscow will once again receive from the West the dangerous message that whatever it does, the worst it can expect is a slap on the wrist.
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