n November 25, Russian warships attacked and seized three Ukrainian navy boats that tried to cross the Kerch Strait. The Ukrainian navy reports that Russian vessels opened fire and wounded at least six Ukrainian naval officers.
On the same day, Ukrainian President Poroshenko and his Military Cabinet passed a resolution to impose martial law in Ukraine. The Ukrainian parliament is scheduled to decide on the resolution on November 26.
Russia’s aggressive actions in the Kerch straits and the unprecedented Ukrainian response highlights the increasing danger of military escalation between the two countries.
The Kerch strait represents a major geostrategic asset. It is enclosed by Russian mainland to the east and by the Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula to the west. The Kerch Strait is the only water connection between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Passage of the strait is crucial for the major port cities in the Sea of Azov, such as Russia’s Rostov-on-Don and Ukraine’s Mariupol, which Russian separatists had repeatedly tried to conquer.
Not surprisingly, Ukraine and Russia have clashed over the strait well before 2014.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Kerch strait became an object of legal and political contention. Ukraine unilaterally claimed a boundary line in the strait in 1999 and made moves to declare parts of the Sea of Azov as internal waters.
Russia countered in 2003 by building a dike from its mainland towards Tuzla island, a speck of land in the very part of the Kerch strait Ukraine claimed as its own. The incident, to this day, is cited by Ukrainian leaders and experts as an early proof of Moscow’s aggressiveness.
Russia’s continuous attempts to control the Kerch Straits have long been connected to its designs on Crimea. Ukraine has always resisted these efforts, which got the two countries close to military conflict well before 2014.