Tensions at Sea: what do Russia's actions against Ukraine tell us about the 'new' world order

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Clearly Russia sees itself as a rising power and a driver of a new world order. But it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that this doctrine of limited sovereignty harks back to the international relations of the nineteenth century, of exclusive spheres of influence in Europe. Might is once again becoming right, and anarchy in international relations is slowly but surely once again beginning to prevail.”  

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With annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, many commentators have noted the ‘unpredictability’ of Russia. This unpredictability seems to be confirmed in the latest episode in the Russia-Ukraine clash. However, there is a certain logic underpinning Russia’s actions against Ukraine.

When Russia annexed Crimea in the spring of 2014, it took control of the Ukrainian exclusive marine economic zone around Crimea. This included the Kerch Strait, the waterway connecting the Azov and Black seas. In May 2018 Russia completed the building of a bridge linking Crimea with mainland Russia, thereby gaining control of the sea traffic between the Black and Azov seas. Russia has used this control to de facto blockade two of Ukraine’s major ports (Mariupol and Berdiansk). Ukrainian ships have been subjected to major delays leading to economic losses resulting in dwindling commercial traffic. This has amounted to attempt to turn the Azov Sea into a Russian ‘lake’. Already in October, the European Parliament deplored ‘the excessive actions of the Russian Federation in the Sea of Azov insofar as they breach international maritime law and Russia’s own international commitments’.

In late November the Russian navy shot at and then seized two small Ukrainian military ships and a tugboat. After being blocked from entering the Kerch Strait, the ships were returning to port. Russia’s belligerent response is based on claim that they had illegally entered Russian territorial waters. This seems extraordinarily excessive, and is strongly suggestive of an alternative logic behind the response. This is confirmed by the subsequent detention of 23 Ukrainian sailors who were transferred to Moscow for trial.

Commentators interpret the latest episode as a continuation of the heightened state of tension that has existed between the two states after the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing undeclared war in eastern Ukraine which has claimed more than 10,000 lives. However, there are two rather profound aspects of this development. 

Firstly, Russia feels confident enough to challenge the 2003 bilateral agreement which enshrined the right of Ukraine to share the Azov Sea with Russia. While de jure the agreement still stands, de facto Ukraine is now being prevented from accessing it. This suggests that Russia seems to still regard its land maritime borders as commensurate with those of the Soviet Union and thereby reserves itself the right to change what it perceives as ‘internal’ borders, at will. In other words, it appears that Russia is discounting the legal status of Ukraine and ignoring international law in light of the West’s reluctance to respond.

Secondly, the Ukrainian sailors have been detained as criminals, rather than prisoners of war (POW) meaning that they are not subject to the Geneva Convention on POWs. This is particularly concerning as they were military personnel on duty when their ships were seized. Although denied access to Ukrainian diplomatic representatives, Russian independent lawyers are providing legal representation, at evident risk to themselves. This indicates that Moscow’s policy towards states of the former Soviet Union is regarded as its ‘internal’ affair. Military personnel of a neighboring state have criminal cases instigated against them for ‘illegal border crossing’. Rather than comply with international law, Russian domestic law is used in an instrumental way, something which is referred to by legal scholars as ‘legal nihilism’. 

These two aspects indicate that Russia follows a doctrine of limited sovereignty vis-à-vis the neighbouring states. This doctrine also shapes Russia’s interactions with other ‘external’ actors:  if a neighbouring state is not controlled by Russia, it is under the control of another power. Thus, any foreign policy decisions of neighbouring states, which are regarded as against Russian interests, are deemed to have been inspired by external (mainly western) interference. Any crisis is seen as the result of hostile forces that want to weaken Russia. Such was Russia’s conviction regarding Ukraine’s free-trade agreement with the EU which resulted in the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is therefore framed as defense against the Western encroachment.

Clearly Russia sees itself as a rising power and a driver of a new world order. But it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that this doctrine of limited sovereignty harks back to the international relations of the nineteenth century, of exclusive spheres of influence in Europe. Might is once again becoming right, and anarchy in international relations is slowly but surely once again beginning to prevail. The international laws and norms which have painstakingly been built up since 1945 are being eroded on the European continent and as things stand there appears to be nothing in place to stop it. The ‘new’ world order is not so new, after all.

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