Washington’s Dangerous Ukraine Entanglement

Dangerous tensions between Russia and Ukraine are spiking again.  The latest catalyst was a November 25 clash between Russian and Ukrainian warships in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.  That narrow strait separates Russia’s Taman Peninsula from Crimea.  Despite Moscow’s annexation of the latter in 2014, Kiev still considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory, a position that the United States and its allies back emphatically.  Moreover, passage through the strait is the only maritime link between Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and those on the Azov.  Kiev views the strait as international waters and relies on a 2003 bilateral navigation treaty to vindicate its position.  

With the annexation of Crimea, however, Russia now regards the waterway as its territorial waters.  When three Ukrainian ships violated Moscow’s demand for 48 hours-notice and official permission for transit (a procedure Kiev had followed a few months earlier). Russian security forces intervened, ramming one ship and firing on the others, wounding several Ukrainian sailors, and then seizing the offending vessels. 

The United States and the other NATO members reacted with fury to this incident.  In an address to the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted Moscow for “outlaw actions” and stated that the “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior.”  NATO held an emergency meeting with the Ukrainian government, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed the Alliance’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law.”   

Ukraine’s leaders want far more than NATO’s moral support, however.  In addition to a boost in U.S. arms sales, Kiev is seeking a show of military force by the Alliance.  Indeed, President Petro Poroshenko expressed the hope that NATO members “are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security.”

Leaving aside the problem than much of the Sea of Azov is too shallow (in some portions no more than 6 meters in depth) to accommodate most NATO warships, attempting to use the Kerch Strait without Moscow’s permission would create a horrifically dangerous crisis.  Even moving NATO ships to the eastern waters of the Black Sea adjacent to the Strait would constitute a perilous provocation.  Unfortunately, some political leaders, media figures, and policy experts are pushing for such a deployment.  Sen. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), for example, called for tougher sanctions against Russia, additional NATO exercises on the Black Sea and more U.S. security aid to Ukraine, “including lethal maritime equipment and weapons.”

As I discuss in a new article in the American Conservative, going down the path of increasing U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine is unwise on both strategic and moral grounds.  Contrary to the narrative that Western journalists and politicians push, the quarrel between Russia and Ukraine is not a stark struggle between an aggressive, dictatorial Goliath and an innocent, beleaguered, democratic David.  Ukraine is, at best, a quasi-democratic country with a worrisome overlay of ultra-nationalism and even neo-fascism.  The relative merits of the territorial claims between Moscow and Kiev are complex and murky.  In any case, that dispute is a parochial matter that warrants a studiously neutral stance on the part of the United States.   

U.S. officials need to disregard reckless calls for a show of force or a demonstration of “resolve” in response to the Kerch Strait incident. There is nothing at stake in that dispute, or even the larger controversy over the status of Crimea, which impinges on the vital interests of the American people.  Instead of increasing its security connections to Kiev, as hawks are recommending, the United States would be wise to reduce its entanglement.