Russia-Ukraine tensions after Kerch Strait ship incident
A maritime incident between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait sparked global outrage on 25 November. The hostilities occurred when three Ukrainian navy vessels tried to enter the Azov Sea through the Kerch strait from the Black Sea. Russian ships prevented the Ukrainian ships from passing beneath the newly built bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. The Ukrainian ships were rammed by the Russian navy, fired upon and captured with six Ukrainian sailors wounded.
The Kerch Strait bridge, which began construction in 2015, limited the size of cargo ships that can pass into the sea, curbing exports from important ports in Ukraine’s industrial East. The Ukrainian fleet cannot compare with the size of the Russian fleet in the area as Ukraine lost most of its vessels after the annexation of Crimea. Both Ukraine and Russia share sovereignty over the Azov sea. Kiev is aiming to boost its military presence there while Moscow is refusing further militarisation of the area.
According to a 2003 agreement, Ukraine and Russia share control of the sea and both sides should guarantee free passage via the Kerch Strait. However, Russia has been tightening its grip over the sea ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, hurting Ukraine’s economy.
Following the incident, the Ukrainian parliament voted in favour of imposing a 30-day martial law proposed by the president, citing a “serious threat” of Russian ground invasion. The state was declared in 10 out of 27 Ukraine’s regions and gives the authorities the power to order a partial mobilization, strengthen air defences, take steps “to strengthen the counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and counter-sabotage regime and information security”, and limit some freedoms.
The incident triggered an emergency meeting of the UN security council, where the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors blamed each other for the incident. The Russian ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, stated that the incident was planned by the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to divert attention from his domestic unpopularity and to provide justification for further sanctions against Russia.
Some observers were questioning whether Poroshenko was trying to exploit the incident to manipulate elections in which he is expected to lose. However, the elections were not postponed and a date was set for 31 March 2019.
The incident comes at a very peculiar time in Russian politics as well. The Russian public is becoming increasingly frustrated with the stagnant economy and changes in the pension law. Furthermore, recent polls showed a drop in Putin’s popularity. Others believe that Moscow is testing its power while the European Union is preoccupied with Brexit and the US with its divided domestic politics.
Nonetheless, Western countries were quick to condemn Russia’s actions and call for de-escalation, some raising the possibility of new sanctions. In a phone call with Angela Merkel, Putin “expressed a serious concern over Kiev’s decision” and called on Berlin to pursue Kiev from “from further reckless acts”. On Wednesday, Russia said it will deploy more of its advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Crimea and a Reuters reporter saw a Russian warship heading towards Azov.
Airbnb bans Israeli West Bank settlements listings
On 19 November, the home-renting company Airbnb informed about removing listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. This measure will affect approximately 200 listings which do not meet the criteria set by the company’s evaluating framework for occupied territories. Airbnb announced its decision the day before Human Rights Watch published a report on tourist rental listings in the settlements. The NGO praised the Airbnb’s resolution on Twitter and urged other companies like Booking.com to follow suit.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal by the international law since Israel seized the territory in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Some 600,000 Israelis live in the West Bank along with 2.6 million Palestinians. For a long time, Palestinian officials and many human rights organizations were lobbying for a reconsideration of the Airbnb’s business engagement in the territories and accused the company of benefiting from rentals in the illegal outposts. As declared on the company’s official webpage, “many in the global community have stated that companies should not do business here because they believe companies should not profit on lands where people have been displaced.”
The Airbnb’s move has raised controversial reactions. Waleed Ashraf from a Palestinian anti-settlement group stated that “this will contribute to achieving peace.” Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said it was “crucial for Airbnb to follow the position of international law that Israel is the occupying power and that Israeli settlements… are illegal and constitute war crimes.”
On the other hand, Israeli Tourism Minister, Yariv Levin, called the Airbnb’s decision “the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts” and ordered his office to come up with measures to limit the company’s activity throughout the country. Yesha Council, the main organisation representing the illegal settlers, accused Airbnb of becoming “a political site.”
Brexit Deal Approved by EU, It Is Britain’s Turn
EU leaders finally approved the agreement determining circumstances of the UK’s withdrawal from and future relations with the Union. The whole process took twenty months of meetings and negotiations. The EU leaders agreed two significant documents: the Withdrawal Agreement, which sets conditions for the exit from the European Union, and the Political Declaration defining possible relations between the UK and EU after Brexit.
In reaction to the approval, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker explained the contract as “the best possible”, but also added the departure should not be an object of celebrations. US President Donald Trump is not enthusiastic, suggesting the deal might threaten British-American trade relations.
Britain´s Prime Minister Theresa May claims the deal could be a starting point of brighter future and new opportunities for the United Kingdom. May also urged people to support and respect the agreement.
Despite formal approval by the EU, Theresa May needs to convince the UK Parliament to ratify the agreement in December. It could be a challenging task, as many politicians express negative opinions about the deal. Head of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbin claims his party will not support the deal and called it an “act of national self-harm”.
The final approval of the agreement is unsure. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that nothing could be ruled out, not even the possibility of May losing the vote followed by a collapse of the government. In order to sell the deal, May has scheduled meetings with political leaders which are due to start in Northern Ireland this week.
#NATO: Multinational exercise Iron Wolf 2018 wrapped up in Lithuania
On 19 November, 13 NATO Allies with partnering Ukraine wrapped up a Lithuanian-led multinational exercise Iron Wolf 2018. The exercise started on 4 November with the aim of enhancing the force’s readiness and mobilized around 3,500 troops from the participating countries. The troops also worked to enhance their cooperation by training with one of four NATO battlegroups in the region.
The Lithuanian Iron Wolf Brigade participated in the exercise which tested battlegroup’s planning and defensive operations conducting capabilities. The battlegroup’s military mobility was tested en route to the exercise, consisting of around 350 vehicles with 1,400 soldiers. It took less than 24 hours for this largest movement of military vehicles in Lithuania for years to arrive at the place of exercise.
Iron Wolf 2018 together with Trident Juncture 2018 show growing coordination between Allies and their efforts to improve its readiness by the NATO Response Force. In November, NATO Allies also took part in the Romania-led exercise Scorpions Fury 2018 under NATO’s enhanced forward presence unit the Sought-East Multinational Brigade.
NATO has also been experiencing ‘‘unprecedented levels of cooperation’’ with the EU as both voice their worries over the Russian SSC-8 missiles. Following Russia’s actions against Ukraine, NATO has enhanced its presence in the Baltics as a way of responding to a challenging security environment and to the host nations’ request for a greater NATO presence.
Soldiers from 4 Yorks (4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment) conduct rural and urban training as part of Exercise Iron Wolf in Lithuania, a multi-national exercise involving troops from Canada, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, and Italy. pic.twitter.com/g7ryMIBMZt
— British Army (@BritishArmy) November 22, 2018
Image: President of Russia | Celebrations of Russian Navy Day and Ukrainian Navy Day
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Ondřej Zacha.
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