As planned I deliberately held off writing anything about the recent crisis involving the Kerch strait and the Azov sea in order to size up the situation. While Russia’s response to a non-threatening, unarmed tugboat was ridiculously over-the-top, eventually involving several air assets including Kamov attack helicopters, at the moment it does not seem as though the big open Russian invasion is coming. I suspect this is just the latest chapter in a long-running story of Russia trying to assert full control over the Azov sea while simultaneously putting more economic pressure on Ukraine. Since that entails blocking Ukrainian vessels’ access to the Kerch strait, it makes sense that they’d start with some provocative gesture like the one on Sunday. Of course being idiots, they released a video of the event that clearly shows their coast guard ship acting in a needlessly aggressive manner.
The day’s events were soon followed by a panic over the declaration of “martial law” by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. I put that in quotes because while the term is in fact “martial law” in the 2015 legislation, even his initial proposal was pretty weak by the usual measure of martial law. He wasn’t even going to declare war or mobilization. After some wrangling from the Rada, more limitations were secured, most importantly the limiting of the “martial law” to 10 regions and the reduction from 60 days to 30 days. In any case, I’ll be in Ukraine during part of this “martial law” so if I get picked up for breaking a curfew, you’ll know about it. In any case, a lot of this hysteria could have been avoided had the government used some more appropriate term like “state of emergency,” but “martial law” was the term they went with so there it is.
Still, I can’t help but say “I told you so” to those slavish bootlickers who believe that sticking up for Ukraine means fanatically defending its leaders, as though the state is the highest expression of Ukrainian self-determination. Apart from holding a view not very far removed from the predominant ideology of Putin’s Russia, i.e. that citizens exist to serve the state and must not question their leaders, the government’s panicked and ultimately ineffective response to this crisis shows how ill-prepared they are to deal with a Russian escalation. After all, if Russia decides to claim the Azov sea as its own internal waters as it may be planning to do, what will Poroshenko or anyone else in Ukraine’s government do? And we’re not even speaking about an outright Russian invasion here. I’ll tell you what the various factions will do. The liberal centrists will cry for the West to solve the problem for them, the pro-Russian and secretly pro-Russian factions will call for “peace,” and the nationalists will beat their chests, burn a few more tires outside the Russian embassy, and commit some acts of petty vandalism before going back to their usual routine of attacking innocent LGBT activists, feminists, and Roma. The Kremlin knows this, and it has their number.
So what are the alternatives? Well some things are best left unsaid in public, but suffice to say here that things like hearts and minds, living standards, fighting corruption, and tackling far-right activity matter. You win hearts and minds and increase living standards to show Ukrainians under Russian occupation as well as those bordering those areas that they will have a better future with Ukraine. You fight corruption because corruption undermines the war effort in a myriad of ways and you must show that the post-Maidan Ukraine will not be more of the same with a new coat of paint. You tackle the far-right because they provide grist for Kremlin propaganda mills, they are a stain on Ukraine’s international reputation, they routinely liaise with and invite in members of pro-Kremlin or Kremlin-linked organizations and parties, and first and foremost because their ideology is contrary to a prosperous, free Ukraine whose people live in harmony.
You do these things even though they me be difficult or sometimes unpleasant because more than anything they are necessary. And those who dismiss these things are traitors, shirkers, or con artists, rest assured of that. And if the current Ukrainian state is incapable of doing these things in the face of an existential threat after a certain amount of time, then it has forfeited its right to govern, and the people of Ukraine would do well to seek a better form of governance. I’m not going to pretend that these tasks are simple, but at least the concept is.