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By John Helmer, Moscow

Toward foreign enemies, for the first time in a generation, Russian officials have suspended talk of warnings, serious consequences, gravest consequences, red lines, cross-hairs,  and proportionate response;  they have allowed force to speak instead.    

This supersedes the evidence of position, manoeuvre, prior communication, and international law, details of which are still being debated over the incidents of last Sunday off the Crimean coast between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The message of the Russian armed forces command – Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the General Staff, the Defence Ministry, the Border Force of the Federal Security Service (FSB); in short, the Stavka – is clear and unequivocal:  anyone approaching Russian territory with hostile intent will be shot. There is an important corollary: the Russian side reserves the right to decide unilaterally what is hostile intent.

President Vladimir Putin kept silent for three days. There had been an “invasion”, Putin told a  Moscow conference on Wednesday,  of “Russian territorial waters”. It had been contrived by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to boost his presidential election prospects with domestic voters, and “to sell anti-Russian sentiments” to the US and European Union. “If [the Ukrainians] want babies for breakfast, they’ll probably get babies too.”

Russia’s enemies in the western media have personalized Russian policy in the figure of Putin for so long, the significance of his reticence this time is being missed. “As we’ve seen repeatedly before, from the Crimea incidents of March 2014 to the Il-20 downing in September,” a Moscow source in the position to know comments, “the force of circumstances has overwhelmed Putin’s reluctance. He’s not speaking here of ‘understanding’, as he did recently of the Israeli Air Force. When Russian force talks, it’s no longer Putin.”

The FSB  has issued a detailed chronology, with map coordinates, of the interaction between the Ukrainian Navy vessels enroute between Odessa and Mariupol, and the Russian Border Service. The sequence in time and space, and the locations, can be followed on this map, composed and published by Komsomolskaya Pravda

Map source:  https://www.kp.ru/

The FSB public bulletins can be read in the original Russian; the FSB does not translate into English.  The chronology was reported on Monday, the day after the Sunday incidents.  An English translation has been published here

As the Ukrainian vessels moved towards the Crimea Bridge across the Kerch Strait, Ukrainian officers on board two of the vessels were recorded as arguing between themselves whether they should proceed into the Sea of Azov without Russian permission. When they continued on course, the Russian Border Service reports more than twelve hours of warnings – from 0720 to 2055 – during which time Ukrainian ship commanders decided to run the gauntlet of the Russian escorts, breaking out of contact and their gun range. The first Russian warning shots were fired at 2045; when they were ignored, lethally targeted shots were fired ten minutes later. The Ukrainians surrendered and were boarded by the Russians by 2115.  The three vessels and crews were then disarmed and escorted to Kerch port.

Above: The Ukrainian Navy’s Gurza-M type shallow-draught patrol boats, at sea trials in in 2016; U174 (foreground) is the Akkerman, U175 (rear) the Berdyansk; note the angle of the ship guns. Source:  https://defence.pk/ Below: the Berdyansk on Sunday after Russians boarded and disarmed her.  According to the FSB chronology, after ignoring Russian radio warnings to stop, the Berdyansk and U176 Nikopol had raised their main gun barrels to 45 degrees and swivelled to point them at the Russian interception vessels.

The twelve-hour interval confirms for Russian analysts that both presidents, Putin and Poroshenko, and their command staffs were directly engaged. In March 2014, Putin had warned the Ukraine and the US that militarizing Ukrainian frontier installations targeted on Russia was a red line.  He repeated   the warning last March. “There are some boundaries, you know, the red line [cannot] be crossed.  Let’s also respect our interests.”

The FSB’s version of the bilateral treaties and Law of the Sea provisions applying to the sequence of Sunday’s events is included in the chronology.  For a German and Ukrainian academic review of the legal provisions, read this.   While allowing the possibility for Ukraine to claim rights of “transit passage” or “innocent passage”, the study does not address Ukrainian Navy movements or military operations.

The Russian Foreign Ministry position on the recent history of Azov Sea incidents, including the capture of the Russian fishing vessel Nord eight months ago, was spelled out in detail by spokesman Maria Zakharova last week, on November 22.  Zakharova also provided this official interpretation of the intentions of the Ukrainian government. “Kiev has declared the intention to create a naval base in Berdyansk and to unilaterally delineate a new state border in the Sea of Azov in violation of international law. There is speculation about attracting NATO forces to the region. Our EU partners, who have refused to comment on this situation, should know that these activities by Ukraine have a negative effect on the situation in the region and, consequently, lead to our reply measures taken to protect the safety of Russian citizens and strategic infrastructure, including the Crimean Bridge, especially considering the threats that have been expressed not only by Ukrainian radicals and fringe groups but also by Ukrainian politicians.”

For “reply measures” the spokesman was warning Kiev of military force.

Following the Sunday incidents and the FSB’s chronology, the Foreign Ministry extended the  warning to the US and the European Union: “We are hereby issuing a warning to Ukraine that Kiev’s policy, pursued in coordination with the United States and the EU, that seeks to provoke a conflict with Russia in the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea is fraught with serious consequences. The Russian Federation will firmly curb any attempts to encroach on its sovereignty and security.” For “serious measures” and “curb attempts to encroach” the Ministry meant military force. 

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then subordinated his ministry in the chain of command to the force ministry, the FSB. “Everything that needs to be said about it,” Lavrov said, “is in the statements of the border service of the Federal Security Service of Russia [FSB].”    Lavrov also emphasized the hostile intention of the Ukrainian government. “When Ukrainian officials directly, openly, and publicly called to blow up the Crimean Bridge, for some reason I did not hear Brussels urging them to restrain their representatives and stop calling for terrorist acts…”

The Defence Minister, General Staff, and the Navy have issued no press releases, although the FSB’s chronology confirms there has been coordination of operations with all the services, including the Navy and the Air Force.  The Kremlin was not exactly silent about what collectively had been decided in the operations room during Sunday. On Monday evening, the Kremlin reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had telephoned Putin. During the conversation, according to the communiqué,  Putin “expressed  the hope that Berlin would use its influence on Kiev to stop it from taking further reckless steps.  It was noted that the service personnel of the Russian Coast Guard were ready to provide additional explanations of the developments in the Kerch Strait.” For “explanations of the developments” the Kremlin meant military force.

The American response so far has been wishful thinking. “We should remember that the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812 because of such incidents,” thundered Stephen Blank in an Atlantic Council publication titled: “Russia’s Provocations in the Sea of Azov: What Should Be Done?”  The Kyiv Post has republished it.

According to Blank, the Kiev government “does have options. It can undertake operations to break the blockade, though they would likely be fruitless given the forces Moscow has sent there. Nevertheless, it cannot accept this attack on its sovereignty and integrity passively. Ukraine should give careful consideration to a special operation that might disrupt the bridge that Moscow built over the Kerch Strait that joins Crimea to Russia. But that’s not all. Ukraine should invite the United States and NATO to send a fleet of armed ships to visit Mariupol, the main city on the Sea of Azov coast and defy Russia to fire on or block NATO from exercising the right to visit Ukraine’s ports. Those ships should be armed and have air cover but be instructed not to fire unless fired upon.”

Blank (right) has never served in the US armed forces, nor held command posts at the Pentagon. Instead, he has made a career of fighting Russia from an armchair at the US Army’s War College, the Air Force University, and a consultancy at the CIA.  Blank proposes doing what the US military, and some White House officials, contemplate doing if only they had the firepower to get away with it unscathed. But they don’t. “This is mad”, a Russian source comments, “not blank.”



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