Dangerous tensions between Russia and Ukraine are spiking again. The latest catalyst was a November 25 clash between Russian and Ukrainian warships in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. That narrow strait separates Russia’s Taman Peninsula from Crimea. Despite Moscow’s annexation of the latter in 2014, Kiev still considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory, a position that the United States and its allies back emphatically. Moreover, passage through the strait is the only maritime link between Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and those on the Azov. Kiev views the strait as international waters and relies on a 2003 bilateral navigation treaty to vindicate its position.
With the annexation of Crimea, however, Russia now regards the waterway as its territorial waters. When three Ukrainian ships violated Moscow’s demand for 48 hours-notice and official permission for transit (a procedure Kiev had followed a few months earlier). Russian security forces intervened, ramming one ship and firing on the others, wounding several Ukrainian sailors, and then seizing the offending vessels.
The United States and the other NATO members reacted with fury to this incident. In an address to the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted Moscow for “outlaw actions” and stated that the “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior.” NATO held an emergency meeting with the Ukrainian government, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed the Alliance’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law.”