In February, 2014, Russia invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of the Crimea, seized it by force, and in March purported to “annex” the Crimea to the territory of Russia. During the spring and summer of 2014, Russia sent irregular and other forces into the the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Ukraine, a region also known as the Donbas. Beginning in August, 2014, Russia sent large-scale regular Russian units and weapons into the Donbas, On September 5, 2014, Swiss diplomat and OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini, former president of Ukraine and Ukrainian representative Leonid Kuchma, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine and Russian representative Mikhail Zurabov, DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky signed an agreement known as the Minsk Protocol to halt the escalating military advances and conflict in the Donbas.
After adopting sanctions against Russia that amounted to a mere “slap on the wrist” following Russian seizure and annexation of the Crimea, the European Union, on September 5 2014, adopted serious sectoral sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of the eastern Ukraine. The United States adopted similar sanctions. The timing of the sanctions and the Minsk I Protocol suggested that Putin may have entered the latter in an attempt to forestall the former. In any event, the attempt did not work.
The Russian puppet regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces did not comply with the provisions of the first Minsk Protocol, launching military advances into Ukrainian-held portions of the provinces in January, 2015. As the first Minsk Protocol collapsed, Germany, France, the Ukraine, and Russia (a group known as the “Normandy Quartet”) negotiated a second one, known as the Minsk II Protocol, which was signed by the same parties on February 12, 2015. That agreement has succeeded in containing Russian military advances within Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, though important provisions that called for the restoration of control of the border to the Ukraine have not been implemented. Russia has recently allowed the “separatist” governments of Donetsk and Luhansk to hold elections, in clear violation of the specific provisions of the Minsk II Protocol.
In 2014, when the Russian seizure of the Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas were underway, Russia massed troops on the Ukrainian border. At the time there was much speculation that the apparent goal of the Russians was to seize Ukrainian territory between the Russian-controlled Donbas and the Crimea, in order to establish a “land bridge” connecting Russia and the Crimea.
In 2018, Russia completed construction of a bridge connecting its territory with the Russian-occupied territory in the Crimea. This alleviated the urgent necessity from the Russian point of view of seizing Ukrainian territory in order to create a “land bridge” to the Crimea. It did not, however, eliminate the strategic desirability of joining Russia with the Crimea, where it has a principal naval base (formerly under lease from the Ukraine). Such a “land bridge” would allow the transportation of heavy military equipment which the bridge could not support, and also broaden and deepen economic and commercial ties with the peninsula.
Since the completion of the bridge, Russia has undertaken an increasing number of activities aimed at controlling and most likely curtailing the transit of ships to and from the Black Sea from Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, including Mariupol. This led to the adoption of a non-binding resolution on the subject by the European Parliament on October 25, 2018.
On November 25, Russian naval forces rammed one of three Ukrainian vessels seeking to navigate the Kerch Strait, fired on the vessels wounding some of the Ukrainians, seized 24 Ukrainian sailors, and recently transferred most of them (except the injured) to Moscow for criminal proceedings.
These actions have been denounced by the Washington Post and international law experts as flagrant violations of international law, including a 2003 treaty between Russia and the Ukraine and the Law of the Sea Convention.
Josh Rogin, “Trump must not ‘give away’ the Azov Sea to Putin, Washington Post, November 28, 2018.
Alexander Vershbow, “Will Trump let Russia take the Azov Sea?” Washington Post, November 28, 2018.
Editorial, “Russia’s escalation against Ukraine shows how little Putin worries about the West,” Washington Post, November 26, 2018.
The Trenchant Observer