Political opportunists seek to use gunboat diplomacy for own ends

If you were looking for a time to re-ignite the slumbering conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Sunday would have been a good choice.

With European leaders preoccupied with Brexit and the president of the United States silent, Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships occurred in a diplomatic vacuum that makes the danger of escalation greater than at any time in years.

Neither side has much to gain from re-igniting the full-on shooting war of 2014 and 2015.

But we can expect both Moscow and Kiev to exploit it for political gain.

At a time when Vladimir Putin’s government is facing a serious slide in approval ratings over an unpopular pension reform, a small but successful tangle with a “Ukrainian provocation” will play well on the domestic front.

Russia’s tightly controlled state television devoted major coverage to the incident. Moscow will recount its capture of Ukrainian vessels with undisguised triumph.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko will ask parliament for permission to introduce martial law today.

That would hand him emergency war-time powers, including the ability to suspend elections just months before a presidential vote that Mr Poroshenko, on current polling, is set to lose.

The potential for abuse is obvious. Opposition-minded Ukrainian MPs who backed the 2014 Maidan revolution have already warned that they will want to see “exhaustive” justification for such a move.

Partisans on either side are already claiming that this incident was cynically orchestrated by the other. There may be an element of truth to either or both claims.

But the political opportunists in the Kremlin and Kiev are seeking to exploit an extremely dangerous situation with real military and strategic implications.

Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a war for nearly five years, but this is the first time Russian forces have openly engaged their Ukrainian foes.

Even during the annexation of Crimea and the tank battles in Donbas four years ago, the Kremlin claimed – however implausibly – not to be involved.

The blunt truth is that a nautical confrontation has been brewing in the Sea of Azov for months, and is fast becoming a maritime theatre in the slow-burning land war that has devastated East Ukraine since 2014.

Since Russia completed its bridge to Crimea across the Kerch Strait earlier this year, tensions at sea have escalated.

By closing the strait of Kerch, the Kremlin has asserted its almost universally unrecognised claim to Crimea.

But it also leaves Ukraine’s small naval presence in the sea of Azov isolated and cut off from reinforcements.

And it brings this part of Europe once again to the brink of something much worse.

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