Opinion | Russia Attacks Ukrainian Ships and International Law

Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea was a violation of international law and a dangerous escalation of the undeclared war the Kremlin has waged for more than four years against Ukraine in Crimea, in the breakaway provinces of eastern Ukraine, and now at sea.

The Kremlin can shout all it wants about a provocation, about an attempt by the Ukrainian president to create a political diversion or about anything else, but none of that changes the fact that Russia had no legal justification for firing on three Ukrainian boats and seizing them.

The vessels, two small armored boats and a tugboat, were headed for the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from Russia and is the only entrance to the Sea of Azov, where much of Ukraine’s coastline lies. Russia claimed they had crossed into Russian waters, but that is based on its illegal claim to Crimea, which it seized in 2014.

Ukraine and most every other state in the world still regard Crimea and its coastal waters as Ukrainian territory. And under a treaty ratified by Ukraine and Russia in 2004 — a now hard-to-imagine time when they could still refer to each other as “historically brotherly nations” — the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait were defined as shared territorial waters. That treaty, signed by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, is still in force.

Yet ever since Mr. Putin opened a new bridge over the Kerch Strait in May, Russia has moved steadily to impose its control over the strait and the Azov Sea. The Kremlin has moved several gunboats into the shallow sea and has begun stopping and inspecting cargo vessels headed for the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, creating long delays and causing large losses to shipping companies and the ports.

Whatever reasons Ukraine might have had for sending three boats toward the strait, it was within its rights. Russia’s reaction — to ram the tugboat after an expletive-rich chase caught on video; to open fire on the boats and seize them, wounding several sailors and taking 23 captive; to scramble fighter jets and block passage under the Crimea Bridge with a freighter — was dangerous, arrogant, illegal aggression.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, declared at a Security Council meeting that Russia’s actions were an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.” NATO, the European Union and European leaders all joined in condemning Russia. In this chorus of condemnation, however, President Trump’s voice was muted, though Ambassador Haley indicated she was speaking also for him.

“We do not like what’s happening either way,” Mr. Trump said on his way to a political rally in Mississippi. “We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it’ll get straightened out.” He added: “I know Europe is not, they are not thrilled. They’re working on it, too. We’re all working on it together.”

The clash at sea had the unfortunate consequences of further muddling Ukraine’s already messy politics. Hours after the ships were seized, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, called a meeting of his security chiefs and declared martial law in southern and eastern provinces, which the Ukrainian Parliament approved, limited to 30 days. The prospect of martial law had raised considerable concerns, since it gives the government greater powers while restricting public gatherings, the media, free movement and other civil liberties.

By limiting the period to one month, Mr. Poroshenko lifted the greatest worry, that he would postpone national elections in March, which he is almost certain to lose. But the notion of imposing controls on selective regions was more likely to exacerbate regional frictions while not doing much for Ukrainian defenses. It’s important that Mr. Poroshenko and his Western supporters ensure that the clampdown is not used to harass citizens who speak Russian and who are clustered in the affected regions, or give the impression that he is using the crisis for political advantage. Political turmoil is not a victory that Russia should be allowed to claim.

Above all, Russia cannot be allowed to get away with this continued bullying of Ukraine. By steadily tightening its hold on Crimea, it is gambling that the West will not have the stomach or stamina to impose ever more punishment or provide more military support for Ukraine. But a direct attack on Ukrainian ships cannot go unpunished. Strong condemnations will not do.

The United States and its Western allies can impose stronger economic sanctions, bar their ships from entering Russian ports in the Black or Azov Seas or increase military support for Ukraine.

These actions all carry risk, but so does doing nothing.

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