Tensions flared up in Ukraine this week when Russian naval vessels rammed a Ukrainian tugboat in the Sea of Azov on Nov. 25. The sea, over which Ukraine and Russia share navigation rights, has become a flashpoint since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Over the last six months, Russian forces have been unlawfully detaining commercial ships seeking passage to Ukrainian ports on the Sea. The initial skirmish this past Sunday quickly escalated to Russia taking control of three Ukrainian vessels, capturing more than 20 sailors, and temporarily blocking the narrow passageway connecting the Sea of Azov to the larger Black Sea. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called Russia’s actions “an outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Moscow’s behavior and called for the immediate release of Ukrainian ships and personnel.
President Trump has not issued a statement but threatened to cancel a planned meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. Still, Trump has refused to hold Russia accountable for its increasingly aggressive behavior and the Kremlin confirms that the meeting will go on as planned. Ahead of the G-20, Trump’s reticence to call out Moscow for its escalatory actions sends the wrong signal to the Kremlin.
The skirmish on Ukraine’s coast is a new escalation in Russia’s four-year war with Ukraine and the latest move to destabilize Ukraine’s economy. So far, the Azov conflict seems unlikely to lead to a full scale military assault by the Kremlin. Rather, it is part of a broader Russian effort to slowly and methodically assert increasing control over Ukrainian territory—both land and sea.