I've been to Crimea – and I know that what's happening there right now is more than just politics. It's personal

A great deal is unknown about the latest events in the Sea of Azov, but the danger of this particular escalation lies in its historical context

Paul Fisher
Monday 26 November 2018 15:38
Comments
A Russian coast guard ship appears to have rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat just off the Crimean peninsula
A Russian coast guard ship appears to have rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat just off the Crimean peninsula

On Christmas Day a few years ago, I found myself in a former Soviet military submarine base on the Black Sea: a poignant reminder that Crimea has long been a cause of hostilities in the region at the centre of conflict. The peninsular has changed hands a number of times – it was occupied by the tsars of the Russian Empire in 1783, was a centrepiece of England, France and the Ottomans' eastern war with Russia in the 1850s, and was returned to the Ukrainian people by former premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Now, the jewel in Catherine the Great’s territorial Crown has become (yet again) the developing epicentre of a disturbing conflict.

On Sunday 25 November, a Russian coast guard ship (Don) appears to have rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat just off the Crimean peninsular. It was then alleged that the Russians opened fire on another Ukrainian naval vessel – Berdyansk – damaging it and injuring a number of Ukrainian servicemen – there are varying reports on how many. The Ukrainian navy was apparently attempting passage from the port city of Odessa to Mariupol, which required them to pass through the Kerch Strait and into the Sea of Azov.

It is alleged that three vessels were seized off the Crimean coast. Two of these appear to have been armed.

These extraordinary events are widely regarded as the most serious amidst an ongoing conflict between the two former soviet republics in the Sea of Azov in recent history.

A great deal is unknown about the events, but the danger of this particular escalation lies in its historical context.

One recent clash casts its long, dark shadow over the emerging squabble: Russia’s actions in August 2008 against Georgia under its former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Ten years ago, Georgian aggression against the people of South Ossetia served as a useful pretext for a swift (albeit short-lived) land invasion by the Russians. That in turn served as a reminder to Russia’s neighbours (if it was ever needed) that it remains the dominant force in the region.

These aggressive acts in the Sea of Azov come only a day after the commemoration of an important historical milestone in the Ukrainian national consciousness. “Holodomor” (the Ukrainian for “death by starvation”) is the name attributed to a period of extreme famine between 1932 and 1933, widely considered within Ukraine, and among a select group of pro-Ukrainian commentators outside the country, to have been an intentional act of genocide by Stalin’s Kremlin. Though the intentional element to these events has been difficult to prove (Holodomor was more likely the consequence of a tragic mix of extreme ideology and incompetence) is questioned by many, there is no doubt that Bolshevik collectivisation (grouping individual landholdings into collective farms and causing the death of millions) lives long in the memory of the Ukrainian people as an act of aggression by its larger neighbour.

Secondly, the fact that all this is taking place around the Crimean peninsular is of acute significance. In 2014, when the peninsular was annexed by the Russian Federation, ships and property were seized, as well as territory. This has spawned numerous arbitral disputes at the international level between Russia and Ukraine. The fact that further military ships (reported to be a third of the Ukrainian navy’s entire armed fleet) have been seized in this latest incident serves to place salt in the Ukrainian wound.

These occurrences represent a flashpoint in what has been a continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and significant military incursions in the Donbass region. Russia denies any formal involvement in the military incursions in the Donbass but concedes that Russian volunteers have fought in the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. Both countries battle for hegemony in the Black and Azov Seas: Russia has built a bridge over the Kerch Strait, while Kiev has declared entrance into Ukraine by any port other than its own a violation of state law.

The symbolism of Russian ships blockading entrance to the Sea of Azov will leave a bad taste in the mouths of politicians in Kiev. For both countries, the peninsular represents something more than territory. It is a deeply meaningful feature of their historical relationship – and enmity.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

In 1954, when Khrushchev ceded the peninsular to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, it was in recognition of the anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 in when the Ukrainian hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, submitted the Cossack state to the protection of the tsar of Muscovy. This was later reinvented in Soviet mythology as the union of the Slavic people of Ukraine and Russia. Increasingly, the relationship between these two Slavic peoples is deteriorating. Just over a decade since the Russo-Georgian conflict in August 2008, Ukraine will be particularly concerned that it remains so close to a neighbour willing to exercise its overwhelming military power and with whom it can find little common ground.

The internationally-recognised territories of Ukraine are divided. Outside the Russian embassy in Kiev yesterday crowds gathered in protest at the latest incident in the Sea of Azov. In Crimea itself, my own experience informs me that while the once great city of Sevastopol is crumbling, stuck in a strange time warp, the majority of the people of the peninsular are trapped between two ideals: they want to obtain greater prosperity while continuing to retain what they consider to be their essentially Russian identity.

Let there be no doubt: this is a brewing conflict born out of growing ethnic and historical (not simply governmental or political) divisions at the very borders of Europe. It should be a cause for concern and action.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in