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The Week In Russia: 'Aggression' At Sea And A Canceled Meeting In Argentina

Ukrainian sailor Yuriy Budzylo, who was detained by Russia off the Crimean coast, appears at a court hearing at Simferopol's Kyievsky District Court on November 27.

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After an unprecedented burst of violence near a key choke point off Crimea, Russia added 24 sailors and security officers to the dozens of Ukrainians it is holding in custody nearly five years after Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukraine announced it is barring Russian men from the country, and President Vladimir Putin saw a major meeting with his U.S. counterpart slip away again when President Donald Trump, citing the maritime clash, canceled what could have been two hours of talks in Buenos Aires.

But will the West let Russia “take the Sea of Azov” anyway?

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Hostage Crisis

Russia is holding dozens of Ukrainians behind bars for what rights groups and the inmates themselves say are political reasons – among them activists, journalists, and the film director Oleh Sentsov, who staged a 145-day hunger strike in a remote Far Northern prison to demand the release of what he said were 64 of his countrymen in the custody of Moscow.

The exact current number of these detainees -- some say hostages – may be unclear. But it just increased by 24: After Russian Coast Guard craft rammed and fired on three Ukrainian Navy vessels near the tension-choked Kerch Strait on November 25, courts in Russian-controlled Crimea swiftly sent their crew members to pretrial detention – a euphemism for jail – for two months.

Having two dozen new captives may have been one of Russia’s motives for the actions of its coast guard, which is run by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Ukrainian servicemen attend military drills near the village of Urzuf, not far from the city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, on November 29. The Ukrainian military is on full combat alert.
Ukrainian servicemen attend military drills near the village of Urzuf, not far from the city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, on November 29. The Ukrainian military is on full combat alert.

Holding Ukrainians and even its own citizens behind bars has repeatedly proved useful for Moscow in the past, such as when it swapped military aviator Nadia Savchenko for two Russians captured amid the conflict in eastern Ukraine or when it released a pair of Pussy Riot punk protesters in what many called a public-relations move ahead of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

This time, the move, if that’s what it was, may have backfired. At least for the time being, that is, and in the context of President Vladimir Putin’s hopes – both stated and seemingly evident – for a closer, more productive relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. Or at least for a meeting less fleeting than their brief encounters earlier this month in Paris.

On And Off

Substantive talks that had initially been expected in Paris were postponed until the two presidents would both be in Buenos Aires for a G20 summit on November 30-December 1.

A day before that gathering, the meeting was off again -- canceled by Trump in an abrupt announcement on Twitter that came shortly after he had said he would “probably” meet with Putin. And also after Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that two hours had been set aside for the presidents to meet at a Hyatt hotel in Buenos Aires on December 1.

"Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel” the meeting, Trump tweeted.

“I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” Trump tweeted, challenging Putin to free the sailors and return them to Ukraine.

That seems unlikely to happen soon, for at least two reasons.

It would be hard for Putin to do it so quickly without looking weak, for one thing. And it would puncture the narrative – constructed carefully by the Kremlin but widely disbelieved and derided in both Russia and the West – that the detained seamen are suspects in a straightforward, not-at-all-political border violation case and await fair hearings in an independent justice system.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their talks in Helsinki on July 16.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their talks in Helsinki on July 16.

Bowing to Trump's "ultimatum" and freeing the crewmen now would mean "a loss of face and sovereignty" for Putin and Russia, Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in the media outlet Republic.

"After some time they will probably be freed or exchanged, but certainly not now," Frolov wrote. He predicted that Putin's response would be to "strengthen pressure on Ukraine."

Who Benefits?

Trooping the Ukrainians into courtrooms where they were ordered held in custody for two months with the possibility of extension allows Russia, pulling its patented straight face, to cast the matter as a strictly legal issue rather than what Kyiv calls it -- a blatant act of “aggression” and a sign that Moscow has widened the war between Ukraine and the separatists Moscow backs in the Donbas.

With more than 10,300 people dead since April 2014 in that conflict, which Russia insists it is not fighting despite ample evidence of deep involvement, the clash off Crimea marked the first time Moscow has acknowledged that its military or security forces have fired on Ukrainians on land or at sea.

Putin sought to separate the maritime confrontation from the Donbas war in his first public comments on the clash, telling an audience of foreign executives on November 28 that it was no more than a border incident. In addition to blaming it on Kyiv, he accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of staging the confrontation to boost his seemingly slim chances of reelection in March.

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Some observers said the clash at sea was more likely the result of political calculus by Putin, not Poroshenko. It’s still early in the Russian president’s six-year term, which could be his last – though he stressed in comments at the same financial forum that he’s “not planning on going anywhere yet.”

But his approval rating has fallen in recent months, with public dismay at an imminent increase in the retirement age denting his popularity and more Russians holding him responsible for the country’s problems, making him look more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of other potential motives for Russia to do what it did, regardless of whether it was provoked.

Facts On The Ground – And At Sea

Among them: Leveraging what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov likes to call “new realities” – in this case, Russian control over Crimea – to put military, political, and economic pressure on Kyiv, hem in Ukraine’s Sea of Azov coast, and challenge the West.

“Moscow likely intended to escalate things in order to force Ukraine to accept the new situation on the ground, so that Ukraine would no longer seek passage through the Kerch Strait without approval by Russia,” according to Aleksandr Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The strait between Russia and Crimea -- now spanned by a bridge Putin opened in May – is the only way in and out of the Sea of Azov, whose northern shore is dotted with Ukrainian ports including Henichesk, Berdyansk, and Mariupol – a front-line Donetsk Province city just a few kilometers west of territory held by the Russia-backed separatists.

While Putin is portraying the naval clash as an isolated incident, Kyiv rejects that – and pointed to evidence to the contrary on November 29, accusing Russia of barring ships from entering and leaving the Sea of Azov in a de facto blockade of its ports there – despite the fact that Ukraine and Russia share both the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov.

In the wake of the incident at sea, Kyiv has taken highly visible, unprecedented steps in response. The government imposed martial law for a monthlong period in 10 regions, including all of those that border Russia or have coastlines.

And on November 30, the Ukrainian border guard chief said Russian males aged 16 to 60 are prohibited from entering the country.

'Ominous' Steps

Putin’s “nothing-to-see-here” claim is also gaining little traction in the West.

One problem with the argument is that there is something to see, literally: A video released by Ukrainian authorities that appears to show the view from the bridge of the Russian Coast Guard craft ramming the Ukrainian tugboat after a stream of expletives from a person on board who cannot be seen. Another is the fact that six Ukrainians were reportedly wounded in the confrontation.

“Russia’s illegal blockade and closure of the Kerch Strait on Sunday and its violent seizure of three Ukrainian ships are clear violations of international law and of bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreements,” Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and deputy chief of NATO, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post on November 28.

According to Vershbow, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, the Russian actions were far from a “one-off” event.

He sees it in the context of other actions that “look ominous in retrospect,” citing persistent artillery and rocket attacks in the Donbas, sanctions Russia imposed on Ukrainian companies and business leaders on November 1, and elections held by the Russia-backed Donbas separatists on November 11 – in violation, according to Kyiv and Western governments, of a European-brokered cease-fire and peace deal known as Minsk II.

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“Russia has been intensifying the pressure on Ukraine over the past three to four months in small steps, similar to what we saw in Moscow’s creeping aggression against Georgia in the spring and summer of 2008," he wrote. “This may be based on the hope that each small step will be met with nothing more than political protests by the West.”

'Deeply Concerned'

The Russian actions have drawn widespread criticism in the West, but so far no promises of action.

Driving that fact home in withering form, a Twitter user called Soviet Sergei posted a series from Western officials, many of them including the term “deeply concerned” or something close to it.

Some leaders called for action: Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid accused Russia of waging "war in Europe" and beseeched the international community to act, saying that "silent acknowledgement means de facto recognition of the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula" and adding that Moscow’s actions "will not, shall not, and cannot ever again be accepted as business as usual."

Carnegie’s Gabuev suggested that Russia went too far, writing that “ramming, shelling, and seizing Ukrainian ships and sailors was a clear overreaction” – a suggestion that the moves created a risk for Putin.

Trump’s cancellation – which was preceded by a November 27 warning that he might not meet with Putin because “I don't want that aggression at all" – seemed to support that reading.

Spin Cycle

The Kremlin set the dial on spin shortly after Trump’s tweet, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov trying two almost opposite tacks: The Kremlin regrets that a “serious discussion of international and bilateral issues” will be put off indefinitely, he said, but the cancellation would give Putin more time to talk to other leaders.

As it has done repeatedly, Russia may point to U.S. political infighting as the root cause of troubles in ties between Washington and Moscow. The cancellation came not long after Trump had said the meeting would probably go ahead – and on the same day that his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump real estate project in Russia.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Putin wanted the talks with Trump to go ahead.

But some believe it’s less about the meeting itself than about what, if anything, the United States and other Western countries do to thwart Putin’s perceived aims in waters off Ukraine.

“Trump has promised to be tougher on Russia than his predecessor,” Vershbow wrote, noting that Trump has accused former President Barack Obama of letting Moscow seize Crimea on his watch. “The question today is: Will Trump let Russia take the Azov Sea as well?”

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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