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Earlier this year, Russia finished constructing and then opened the Kerch Bridge, which links mainland Russia with the Crimea, the peninsular which it annexed in 2014. Russia described it as the ‘construction of the century’, which is unsurprising considering the fact that Moscow has spent centuries pondering over whether to build such a transport link. Of course the bridge also demonstrates Russia’s dominance over the Kerch Strait; the narrow area of sea which the bridge traverses, which also just so happens to be the only entrance and exit to the highly strategic Azov Sea.
Ukrainian ships sail through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to access its own ports, which sit along the Azov coastline. Berdyansk and Mariupol are the two most important Ukrainian settlements located here, and they also lie very close to the Donbass conflict area.
Late last month, Russia closed the Kerch Strait to all sea traffic, using a container transport ship to block the narrow area of water where ships can pass under the bridge. Russian fighter jets then proceeded to fly low over the bridge, and Special Forces were transported using helicopters to nearby areas of land for disembarkation. It is unclear whether the blockade was caused by Ukrainian Naval Vessels proceeding through the area without prior warning, (which they are required to do by law), or whether Russia launched an unprovoked action. Whatever the reason, Russia then went onto attack the Ukrainian Naval Vessels, and after a short skirmish managed to capture them and their crew.
This inevitably caused tensions to rise rapidly between Ukraine and Russia, and events have not slowed down since. Ukraine has declared martial law throughout much of its territory and has called up reserves, whilst Russia continues to move more of its forces towards the Ukrainian border. There has also been an upsurge of activity in the Donbass conflict area, with reports of tanks being moved towards the frontline.
The southern and eastern parts of Ukraine are heavily pro-Russian or ethnically Russian, whilst the north and west of the country are largely ethnically Ukrainian and pro-Western. This divide has caused continuous political problems since the fall of the Soviet Union, and these problems escalated into war in 2014. It may seem unlikely to us in the West that Russia or Pro-Russian rebels in Donbass would launch an offensive during the cold, dark winter months. However Russian troops are trained specifically for such an eventuality, and as World War 2 showed, they have a history of using the brutal winter to their advantage.
To add to the instability, the Ukrainian Presidential election is scheduled for March 2019, which will mean current President Petro Poroshenko will be under a lot of pressure to solidify Ukraine’s strategic position before (potentially) leaving office. Interestingly, Poroshenko has not yet formally declared his interest in standing for re-election, a decision which he must make by the 4th February 2019.
Ukraine’s determination to join NATO, which if it did would mean vast swathes of Pro-Russian areas coming under the West’s military sphere, has always provoked anger in Moscow. Ukraine cannot win a straight fight with Russia, and NATO will never directly intervene, because it does not want the risk of two Nuclear powers fighting each other. The most likely course of events is a steady Pro-Russian advance across Pro-Russian areas of Ukrainian territory over the next few years and decades.
In 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, which stipulated that Ukraine would give up its 2000 nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union, and in return the United States, Britain and Russia would ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A lesson learnt the hard way then – countries do not keep to their promises, so you must never give up your national insurance policy.