Russia forcibly blocked three Ukrainian naval vessels from crossing the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov on Sunday. Both countries are blaming each other for the incident: Ukraine accuses Russia of blocking its access to the sea, while Russia accuses Ukraine of illegally entering its territorial waters. (The Kerch Strait lies off the eastern tip of Russia-controlled Crimea.) Whatever the case, the Ukrainian ships have been seized and at least three Ukrainian sailors were injured in the incident. Russia temporarily cut off access to the Kerch Strait (it has since been restored) and called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council for later today.

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Comparisons to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, in which Russia used Georgian provocations to justify military action in Georgia, are hard to avoid. The reality, however, is more complicated than this. True, Russia has been slowly solidifying its position in Crimea since March 2014 and appears to be preparing for potential (perhaps inevitable) military intervention in eastern Ukraine. But it’s unlikely that Russia is spoiling for a fight right now.

Indeed, developments in Ukraine had been proceeding in a direction favorable to Russian interests. Ukraine’s economy is struggling, and Kiev had to seek a new standby arrangement with the International Monetary Fund in September to help meet its rising debt payments. Its navy is overmatched and just lost three more ships in the recent dust-up. Presidential elections are slated for March, and polls suggest no candidate has more than 30 percent support – it’s entirely possible that a more pro-Russian government could come to power without Moscow lifting a finger. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit – the latest in a string of Russian attempts to improve relations or at least reduce U.S. sanctions.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has more reason to provoke a conflict. The primary reason is to persuade its European and American allies to continue, and perhaps increase, their support of the government in Kiev, especially as the cost of that support rises. Domestic politics might also play a role. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said he will ask parliament to declare a state of martial law later today – which could delay the upcoming election in which Poroshenko’s support appears to be dropping. Ukraine has been through far worse in recent years than the Kerch Strait incident without having to invoke martial law.

The conflict in Ukraine is one of the main sticking points in U.S.-Russia relations – it might even be the top sticking point, as evidenced by Washington’s decision to provide Kiev with anti-tank missiles and other lethal weapons late last year. Russia views Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, while the U.S. recognizes no such sphere. Aside from Belarus, which is practically a Russian province for now, and Moldova, which currently has a pro-Russia president, there is no other weak point in Eastern Europe. The Baltic states, Poland and Romania are NATO members and have iron-clad security guarantees. NATO is also making inroads in the Balkans. Ukraine, therefore, is the front line in the dispute between Russia and the West over Eastern Europe, and for all of the West’s posturing and rhetoric, Russia is more prepared for conflict there than the West is.

But Russia doesn’t need to push the issue right now. It has lost a great deal of influence in western Ukraine and Kiev, but in eastern Ukraine, cultural, economic and linguistic ties still run deep – and get deeper the farther east you go. In addition, Ukraine is under pressure from not just Russia but also Poland and Hungary, which both have ongoing diplomatic disputes with Kiev. Russia seems more poised for a potential disintegration of the political status quo in Ukraine than an offensive takeover of the country – a takeover that even Russia’s considerable military force couldn’t maintain in western Ukraine. The main issue here is Ukrainian fragility, not Russian aggression, and the Kerch Strait incident shines a light on that fragility more than anything else.

Jacob L. Shapiro
Jacob L. Shapiro is a geopolitical analyst who explains and predicts global trends. He is the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures, a position he has held since the company’s founding in 2015. He oversees a team of analysts, the company’s forecasting process and the day-to-day analysis of important geopolitical developments. Mr. Shapiro is a regular speaker at international conferences and has appeared both in print and on television as an expert on international affairs in such places as MSNBC, CNBC, the New York Times and Fox News. Prior to Geopolitical Futures, Mr. Shapiro worked at Stratfor as an analyst and as the director of the operations center. He joined Geopolitical Futures to help found a new company dedicated to publishing excellent analysis and accurate forecasts based on the geopolitical method Dr. Friedman pioneered. Mr. Shapiro holds a master’s degree from Oxford University, where he won an award for his dissertation on the link between philosophy and mysticism in 20th century Jewish thought. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Near Eastern studies.