*Edited by Carey Bennington
For as long as they have existed, armed conflicts have simply served as pretexts to mask the hidden interests of an adversary camp or with the intention of escalation that could provide a territorial conquest. When Russia’s green soldiers invaded the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea four years ago, most political analysts saw this as a declaration of hybrid war.
Now, in light of this armed conflict which has broken out close to the Kerch strait, everybody is wondering what will be at stake if we go to war?
On November 25, three Ukrainian navy ships were seized by Russian forces while they were trying to “illegally” cross the into the territory of the Sea of Azov. Russia saw this attempt as an act of aggression, a provocation on the part of Ukrainian state, and all the more so since lethal munition was found on board, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
Beside lethal munition, they also found a document entitled ‘A checklist of the Nikopol boat’s,’ stating that the whole operation of crossing the maritime barriers should happen “in secret”. According to FSB, it appears that the operation was coordinated by two Ukrainian Security Service officers.
With this evidence, Russia accused Ukraine of violating article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, part 2 of article 11 of Russia’s federal law on internal waters, territorial sea and adjacent areas of July 31, 1998. They also opened a pre-trial for the sailors involved in this secret mission.
On the other hand, Ukraine sustained in the name of international law that they did not violate any convention by trying to cross over the Kerch Bridge to the Azov Sea. According to international law and to Article 2.1. of the ‘Treaty between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait’ signed in December 2003, Ukraine has equal rights to it as Russia for free circulation of merchant vessels and warships in the shared territorial waters.
Background of the convention
Since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and Russia’s construction of the Kerch Bridge, Ukraine has complained of an “economic blockade.” This may be because, since annexation, all ships passing through the Azov Sea have had to adhere to strict checks by Russian officers. This is seen by the government in Kiev as a serious impediment in the development of their economy in their attempts to adhere to the European Union’s policies. More than 80% of Ukraine’s exports take place in the geographical area that extends from the Azov Sea to Mariupol Port.
Mariupol is known for its significant role in the development of Ukrainian industry, as well as for its military capacity. Here, powerful magnates such as Rinat Akhmetov hold control over one of the largest private companies, Metinvest. Specializing in mining and steel manufacture, Metinvest Group belongs almost entirely to System Capital Management, of which Rinat Akhmetov holds 100% of the shares.
Through this business, Mr. Akhmetov exerts his influence, although this is not limited to business affairs, but extends also into the political sphere in Mariupol and in the Donbas region. The close relationship between Mr. Akhmetov and the ex-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was visible especially in 2010 when he, the candidate for the Party of Regions, won the presidential elections. Suspicions surrounding the elections and his potential support the candidature of Yanukovych have grown due to close relations to “The family,” Yanukovych’s inner circle, and his speedy ascension in the business world.
The Godfather of the Donetsk clan, a title sometimes given to Mr. Akhmetov, is often suspected of having ties with world of interloping and for being involved in organized crime, as was cited in a report titled ‘Overview of the Most Dangerous Organized Crime Structures in Ukraine’ from September 1999 for “money laundering, financial fraud, and controlled a large number of both real and fictitious companies”.
Even if he had showed a neutral position with regard to politics, Akhmetov is also believed to support the rise to power of pro-Russian separatists. Like many other oligarchs and pro-Russian separatists, he would prefer to see Ukraine gain her economic independence without the EU.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine might influence March elections
The armed conflict which broke out near the Kerch strait at the end of last year was the apogee of tensions between Russia and Ukraine which have accumulated over the past four years, since the 2014 elections and the signing of the economic section of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement.
Now the script repeats itself, somehow, again. With the approaching round of democratic elections, Ukraine is once again under threat by Russian invasion. Who will be the successor of Yanukovych, Poroshenko in Ukraine’s presidency? Petro Poroshenko has fallen sharply in opinion polls in recent months and may fall even further following his introduction of martial law in many regions from Ukraine, condemning his people in a state of war.
The methods he uses to gain favour among voters are not too dissimilar from those of the Russian government. Both Poroshenko and Putin might consider this armed conflict to be a means of gaining favour with the hope of re-election. Russia would also be interested in having a pro-Russian leader of Ukraine.
This apparent chaos of military escalation, created just before the election, to create a larger corridor in the waterway, albeit through more complicated steps, might be part of a political strategy to influence Ukrainian elections.
 According to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), an artillery system, guns, automatic grenade launchers, and more were found on board the Ukrainian navy ships. A group of Ukrainian sailors were arrested and detained as common criminals in a pre-trial for illegally crossing the Russian border, under Article 322.3 of the Russian Criminal Code. The number of detentions was expected to grow from 4 to 20 at least, until April 24. If the sailors were found guilty by Russian Court, they would risk six years in prison. For more on this, see Russia’s FSB makes public list of weapons found onboard detained Ukrainian warships, TASS Russian News Agency (November 27, 2018), http://tass.com/world/1032970?_ga=2.236154113.1605417008.1543326019-869802845.1423561720. Also, see Moscow court extends arrest of 20 Ukrainian sailors detained in Kerch Strait, TASS Russian News Agency (January 16, 2019), http://tass.com/world/1040134.
 In opposition to Russian accusations, Ukraine rebutes the violation of Articles 2, 3, and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 with the capture of members of the Ukrainian crew in an armed conflict started by Russian forces. They also made a request to Russian authorities that the crew members should be treated as prisoners of war (POWs) and not as common criminals. Shortly after the conflict started, members of the Ukrainian crew were arrested and sent to jail where they were forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit. According to an article published on Radio Lemberg’s site, the arrested sailors were taken from a prison in Simferopol and possibly moved to the notorious Lefortovo prison from Moscow. But this information is uncertain about their destination. For more information on this, read the article of Michael MacKay, Violating the Geneva Convention: Russian Federation abuses Ukrainian prisoners of war, Radio Lemberg (November 30, 2018), http://radiolemberg.com/ua-articles/ua-allarticles/violating-the-geneva-convention-russian-federation-abuses-ukrainian-prisoners-of-war.
 Referring to the Treaty of Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine signed in December 2003 and ratified by both countries in April 2004, according to which they share the territorial waters between the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, see https://www.unian.info/politics/10421076-pace-calls-on-russia-to-handle-captive-ukraine-sailors-as-per-geneva-conventions-official-document.html.
 A Pentagon official, Michael Carpenter, disclosed to Vox News that Russia is engaged in a policy of annexation in Azov Sea ever since it completed construction of the Kerch Bridge. See https://www.vox.com/world/2018/11/26/18112426/russia-ukraine-ships-kerch-strait-azov-sea-trump-putin.
 See the article by Taras Kuzio, Crime, politics and business in 1990s Ukraine, published in ‘Communist and Post-Communist Studies’, Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, by Elsevier Ltd., USA, 2014, p. 197: “Leshchenko (2014) said that half of Rinat Akhmetov’s business assets belonged to Yanukovych (Kuzio, 2014b), a factor explaining why Akhmetov was loyal to the president until the bitter end before he fled from power”. The article is available online from 22 May 2014 at http://shron1.chtyvo.org.ua/Taras_Kuzio/Crime_politics_and_business_in_1990s_Ukraine__en.pdf.
 According to Serhiy Kuzin, the author of ‘Donetsk Mafia’ (2006), the opened file was kept by the police from Donetsk until 2004 when it disappeared in unknown circumstances. Kuzin gives the hypothesis that the head of local police, Volodymyr Malyshev, who was named head of the System Capital Management’s security service a year later, might be involved in missing the file. For more on this see https://www.occrp.org/en/projects?option=com_content&task=view&id=182&Itemid=43.
 Owen Matthews, Does Putin intend to go to war with Ukraine?, The Spectator (December 1, 2018), https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/12/does-putin-intend-to-go-to-war-with-ukraine/. Also, see Alexander J. Motyl, Is Russia about to invade Ukraine?, Atlantic Council (December 13, 2018), https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/is-russia-about-to-invade-ukraine.