Tension between Ukraine and Russia

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the simmering conflict heats up between Ukraine and Russia.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Yes, it’s now in year five. This war has claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 Ukrainians, and it’s cost the country its southern peninsula, which is a popular vacation destination.

Now, Russia is moving beyond land grabs. It’s controlling the waterways around that peninsula.

Last month, Russian security forces seized three Ukrainian vessels and two dozen soldiers.

What Moscow claims is that the ships were violating its sovereign territory. But there aren’t many countries siding with Russia on this one.

REICHARD: A 2003 treaty created a shared waterway with the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. Both countries have strategic ports on that sea. Ukraine worries that the latest incident could lead to a full-scale war. It’s even imposed martial law in some areas. WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson has our report.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: When Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, the Kremlin promptly ordered the construction of a massive bridge.

AUDIO: [Putin opening Crimea bridge, cars honking and announcement of Putin]

In May, the 11-mile bridge officially opened, connecting mainland Russia to Crimea. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Trump administration was watching carefully and understood the ramifications.

NAUERT: One of the things I want to mention about it is that the construction of that bridge certainly limits the ability to bring in goods via ship.

Six months later, the waterway under that bridge became the site of a sea battle that threatens to launch a new front in Ukraine’s five-year war.

AUDIO: [Boat ramming]

On November 25th, three Ukrainian vessels attempted to sail north through the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait. That’s the narrow waterway that flows underneath the new bridge. The vessels and soldiers never made it to their port in the Sea of Azov.

AUDIO: [Boat ramming]

Ten Russian naval ships chased the Ukrainians into international waters and rammed into one of the ships. Russia then fired on and seized the vessels and soldiers, including six Ukrainians injured during the incident.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was quick to condemn the attack during a Security Council meeting the following day:

HALEY: As President Trump has said many times, the United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia, but outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible. The United States will maintain its Crimea-related sanctions against Russia.

But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is asking for more than sanctions and  verbal reprimands.

POROSHENKO: [Warning of full-scale war]

In an interview with German press, he asked Germany and NATO for more ships to patrol the contested waters. It’s unlikely he’ll get them.

David Satter is a Russia expert at the Hudson Institute. He says Western nations are afraid of escalating the situation. That gives Russia a huge advantage.

SATTER: It’s like a criminal provoking a law-abiding citizen. He knows that the law-abiding citizen will limit himself to self-defense, and he may not even do that. So it’s a no-risk proposition.

Satter says Western leaders are making it clear Russia’s actions will not go unnoticed. The Ukraine crisis topped a NATO meeting this week. So did concerns over a new Russian missile system that violates a Cold War-era treaty. But the international outcry may not be enough to keep Russia from trying to take Ukraine, piece by piece.

AUDIO: [Russian tanks]

Russia commands the world’s largest army of tanks, and Poroshenko says armored vehicles on the Russian side of the border have increased three-fold, although he gave no time frame for the increase. Last week, Poroshenko imposed martial law in 10 border regions and banned Russians between the ages of 16 and 60 from entering Ukraine. He claims this will help prevent Russia from assembling a secret force to overthrow the country.

AUDIO: [Sound of Ukraine war]

When Russian separatists in 20-14 launched a full-scale war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Russia denied any involvement. But the soldiers who suddenly arrived on Ukrainian soil had Russian weapons. This time “no one will say they’re not there,” Ukraine’s president told soldiers near the border. But that hasn’t stopped the Kremlin from trying to blame others for the conflict.

PUTIN: [Speaking in Russian, saying it was a provocation by Ukraine]

During an economic forum at the end of November, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of provoking the confrontation in the Kerch Strait. The Kremlin also charged the West with stoking tensions and claimed Poroshenko wanted to use the conflict to boost his re-election campaign.

Satter, the Russia expert, says the Kremlin has its own agenda: diverting attention away from problems at home and toward a perceived foreign enemy.

SATTER: So they have an interest in generating that hostility. The better to consolidate their hold on power. I think that that pattern is likely to continue.

Despite condemnation from Western leaders, Moscow has detained the 24 Ukrainian soldiers for 60 days.

AUDIO: [Poroshenko talking to families of soldiers]

Poroshenko met with the soldiers’ families and committed to work for their safe return. He also vowed to protect Ukraine’s borders. But with Russia’s growing boldness, Satter says it will take a united front to keep the Kremlin at bay.

SATTER: I mean what we have here is a case of international aggression, and it’s in the best interest of all countries to make sure it’s not rewarded.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Photo/Associated Press) A Russian tanker blocks the Kerch Strait near Kerch, Ukraine, on Sunday. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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