On Sunday, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships after opening fire on the vessels, which were attempting to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait between Crimea and the Russian mainland, injuring 3-6 sailors and taking into custody 18-23 (estimates conflict). Both sides blamed the other for the incident, and on Monday the Ukrainian parliament assented to president Petro Poroshenko’s request to institute martial law.
Russia cemented its de facto control of the Kerch Strait earlier this year with the completion of a 12-mile bridge, now the longest in Europe, after its still internationally unrecognized occupation of Crimea in 2014. Under a 2003 agreement with Ukraine, the two nations share the Sea of Azov, but Russia has been increasingly using the Strait as a choke point to slow non-Russian shipping in and out, claiming that it needs to do so for security and territorial integrity, imposing regular inspections. The Sea contains the key Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk, the former being important not only for military and economic reasons, but as a symbol, having been taken back by Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed rebels.
Ukraine has accused Russia of illegal behavior and aggression, while Russian media reported that the Ukrainian navy engaged in deliberate provocation by entering their territorial waters without giving prior warning, and ignoring requests to stop. Kiev claims that it did notify the Russians of their intended route.
It is speculated that the incident could be politically advantageous to both Putin and Poroshenko. The Russian leader’s approval ratings have fallen due to the pain from continued economic sanctions, and the unpopular decision to raise the retirement age. Historically, Putin has been able to increase popularity in times of conflict.
As for Poroshenko, his poll ratings have also fallen dramatically, and with elections coming up at the end of March, it’s possible that the incident was orchestrated to unite the nation against an outside threat, declare martial law, and in so doing stunt the ability of opposition candidates to campaign. However, if this was the intention, it has not gone according to plan, as the Ukrainian parliament, pushed by skeptical political opposition, curtailed the president’s original request for 60 day martial law to 30 days, and taking place in only 10 of the country’s 27 regions.