April 5, 2018 – Fort Russ –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
Yesterday, April 4th, new details emerged on Ukrainian maritime border guards’ seizure of a fishing vessel from Crimea. The spokesperson of Ukraine’s State Border Service, Oleg Slobodyan, stated plainly in an interview: “Ukraine will detain all vessels entering and leaving the ports of Crimea without Kiev’s consent.” The grounds for such? Slobodyan explained: “Crimea is an illegally occupied part of Ukraine, therefore law enforcement will react immediately to any violations of entry and exit from the occupied territory.”
To recall, the fishing vessel “Nord”, whose registered port is that of Kerch in the Republic of Crimea, was detained on March 25th in the Sea of Azov. On board were 10 fishermen – all citizens of Russia – engaged in seine-fishing in neutral waters. The vessel was detained by Ukrainian naval border guards. Since the moment of the detention, the crew have been forbidden from communicating with the Russian Consul. The Ukrainian side has also obstructed the purchase of food, and the vessel’s reserves are coming to an end. The crew have claimed that the Ukrainians are literally trying to starve them, and there appears to be little hope that they will be freed from Ukrainian captivity.
Today, according to lawyer Alexander Rudenko, the captain of the ship, Vladimir Gorbenko, is in Kherson in an SBU Crimea unit. To clarify for readers: an absurd situation has taken shape in Ukraine in which regional authorities for the Republic of Crimea are still employed, despite Crimea’s reunification with Russia, and, in addition, a separate ministry for “occupied Crimea” has been established, whose officials are also paid. Of course, all these institutions operate on Ukrainian territory, and are a manifestation of the financial burden which Ukraine suffers as long as it refuses to accept reality.
But back to the story. “Nord” did not violate any Ukrainian or international maritime legislation, and was fishing in international waters. Let us draw attention to the fact that even long before the events of 2014, Ukrainian fisherman regularly poached in Russia’s territorial waters, but Russia never arrested or detained any Ukrainian violators.
This action by Ukrainian border guards is, in legal terms, piracy. However, Ukraine has chosen a very convenient time to attack, as Russia is afraid to take any drastic steps against Kiev and the West. Moreover, now that the West has faced the inconvenient news of the origin of the substance allegedly used to poison the Skripals, new pretexts would come in handy to accuse Russia of aggressive behavior. Any tough reaction by Russia to this seizure of a Russian vessel and barbaric imprisonment of Russian citizens would be instantly used by London and its allies for a new series of information and diplomatic attacks on Moscow.
What’s more, there are more than a few internal Ukrainian reasons for such a gross provocation against Russia. Ukraine always needs pretexts to continue to blame its eastern neighbor of aggression. The deployment of Russian troops to Ukrainian territory would, no matter what the pretext, be a gift to the Kiev regime. President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian General Staff, of course, do not expect Ukraine to defeat Russia in a real war, but any such related turn of events would help launch a full-scale political and diplomatic war against Russia and thereby provide the Poroshenko regime with a much-needed alibi in the West.
A military operation by Russia to liberate the captured fishermen would be the most desirable scenario for Kiev. It should also be remembered that in May, 2019, Ukraine is set to hold presidential elections (if they are not postponed or canceled). President Poroshenko’s approving rating, according to various opinion polls, does not exceed 6-8%. Therefore, he needs to increase his popularity, which cannot be done though improving the socio-economic situation for objective reasons as long as Ukraine’s economy continues to deteriorate. The only way for Poroshenko to stay in power is to, once again, intercept the anti-Russian card from Poroshenko’s Nazi competitors.
Russia has found itself in a difficult situation. The SBU is demanding that the fishermen renounce their Russian citizenship. Unable to take back Crimea, Ukrainian authorities are thus taking their frustration out on individual Russian citizens. In any case, the advantages are on the Ukrainian side.
However, Russia does have some levers of influence. In the summer of 2014, several hundred Ukrainian soldiers fleeing the fire of the LPR militia crossed into Russia. These UAF servicemen received medical care and food at Russia’s expense, after which they were graciously transferred, along with their weapons, back to Ukraine. They were not interned as violators of Russia’s state borders. I believe that this mercy shown by Russian authorities was a grave mistake based in a misunderstanding of the nature of the contemporary Ukrainian state, which harbors elements of a Nazi regime. No smaller of a mistake was the recognition of the so-called presidential elections in Ukraine in May 2014, which were held after the overthrow of the legitimate Ukrainian government and in conditions of outright violence against opposition. Perhaps Moscow will review some of the conceptual mistakes of its Ukraine policy. Maybe it could also take measures against Ukrainian oligarchs on Russian territory. President Poroshenko, as is well known, owns a confectionery factory in the Russian city of Lipetsk – which does not prevent him from signing laws against cooperation with the “occupier.” Ukrainian oligarchs’ property has also been left in place in Crimea. Striking at the wealth of Ukraine’s oligarchs would be a viable response to Ukraine’s reckless actions.
Russian experts have offered various other recommendations, such as proposing that Russia withdraw from the Treaty on the Sea of Azov, which would force Ukrainian ships to be locked within a limited zone of the Sea of Azov. Yesterday it became known that Russia has decided to use warships of the Black See Fleet to prevent Ukrainian piracy in the future.
The fate of the fishermen taken hostage is likely to be decided through closed-door negotiations. I would venture to suggest that Ukraine will demand in exchange the release of those Ukrainian saboteurs who have been arrested in the Crimea, Rostov, and Volgograd regions for preparing terrorist attacks but who, in the rhetoric of Ukrainian authorities and Russian liberals (Sobchak, Sokurov, Kasparov, Navalny, etc.), are called “political prisoners.” If such an exchange takes place, this would be a victory for Ukraine, and a defeat for Russia. Unlike these Ukrainian saboteurs,the Nord fishermen did nothing illegal. If not stopped, Kiev will continue to take citizens of Russia hostage for further bargaining and blackmail. As I have said on more than one occasion, Ukraine is increasingly resembling a terrorist state.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.