Latest clashes a dangerous escalation in Europe’s forgotten war

The latest clashes between Ukraine and Russia in the Sea of Azov are a stark reminder that there’s a war going on in Europe. Tensions are rising and further escalation is likely.

Ukrainian officials claim that the Russian navy attacked their naval vessels on Sunday in the Strait of Kerch, a waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The strait is a vital commercial shipping route as well as the transit point for the Ukrainian navy’s ships in both seas. The Russian FSB admitted to ramming a tugboat, searching three Ukrainian vessels and seizing them and their crews, saying that the Ukrainians had manoeuvred dangerously and had tried to illegally enter Russian waters.

The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, maintains that it had informed the Russians that the ships were travelling from Odessa to Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. A bilateral agreement theoretically allows both sides to use the Sea of Azov, but Moscow has recently intensified its efforts to take control of the maritime domain between Ukrainian and Russian waters. The Kremlin has built a bridge across the strait to allow access between mainland Russia and Crimea. It briefly blocked any traffic through the strait after the incidents on Sunday, but has since reopened it. Other provocative actions in recent months have included tit-for-tat seizures of fishing vessels by Russian and Ukrainian border guards.

In the wake of the most recent incidents, both Ukraine and Russia requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. On Monday, the council refused to adopt Russia’s agenda, which sought to condemn Ukraine, and instead criticised Russian aggression. Following an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s national security and defence council on Sunday, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko asked the Ukrainian parliament to declare martial law, which it did on Monday afternoon after a long debate. From 28 November, martial law will be imposed for 30 days in 10 regions of Ukraine. This is a significant step that until now hadn’t been deemed necessary, despite the ongoing war in the country’s east. There’s been speculation that Poroshenko will use the imposition of martial law as an excuse to postpone elections he’s tipped to lose, but for now Ukrainians will still go to the polls in March.

Five years ago, a series of events led to the situation Eastern Europe finds itself in now. In November 2013, EU accession was in the air in Ukraine. But following pressure from the Kremlin, Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, halted the process for the country to join the EU and didn’t sign the association agreement. Instead, he signed a loan and gas deal with Moscow. Ukrainians, mainly students, gathered at Kyiv’s independence square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) to protest against the president’s decision and express their support for EU integration and European values. After initial peaceful days of protesting, the revolt turned violent as protestors clashed with riot police. Tens of thousands joined the demonstrations after seeing the use of force by police. Over 100 people died and more than a thousand were injured during the next three months of protests and clashes.

After he was impeached in February 2014, Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia and events started to snowball. In March, the Russian government illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine following a highly controversial referendum in which Crimea voted to rejoin the Russian Federation. The Russian parliament recognised Crimea’s independence, thereby violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Only one member of the State Duma voted against the annexation: Ilya Ponomarev, who then had to leave Russia. He was charged in absentia for alleged embezzlement in 2015, and now resides in Kyiv under constant personal protection. The majority of the international community doesn’t recognise the annexation and has applied sanctions against Russia in response.

While the western areas of Ukraine generally favoured closer alignment with the EU, the predominantly Russian-speaking east was less supportive of taking ‘the EU’s side’ and turning their backs on Russia. Russian-backed rebel forces revolted, which eventually led to the creation of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, another hit for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Kyiv deployed the army and, since then, conflict has become a daily occurrence in the country’s east, with pro-Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces clashing with Ukrainian troops.

Despite international efforts such as the Minsk II agreement, brokered by France and Germany with Ukraine and Russia in early 2015, peace hasn’t prevailed. While initially it looked like de-escalation efforts were working, including the agreed truce, the OSCE special monitoring mission—deployed since 21 March 2014—has recorded numerous violations of the agreement. The most recent numbers, for the period 29 October to 11 November 2018, include over 18,000 ceasefire violations and almost 100 instances of weapons violating withdrawal lines. This year alone, known civilian casualties have grown to 216 (43 dead and 173 injured), adding to a total of more than 10,000 lives lost.

Other points in the agreement, such as changing the constitution to recognise the special status of the separatist republics, as well as restoring Ukraine’s full territorial integrity, haven’t been implemented, mainly because of a lack of political will.

Ukraine also continues to struggle with internal problems. Corruption remains one of the biggest challenges for stability and economic progress. Despite promises by successive governments, reforms have slowed, if not halted. Campaigners try to pressure the government to implement anti-corruption measures (as do international donors) and improve law enforcement and the justice system. But attacks on civil society members have increased, with activist and political adviser Kateryna Handziuk the latest victim, after succumbing to injuries suffered during an acid attack in July. Xenophobic attacks by far-right and nationalist groups against Roma people are also on the rise again, as are homophobic attacks against LGBTIQ Ukrainians.

Five years after the Maidan protests signalled its start, the conflict in Ukraine is often forgotten both in media coverage and on agendas in European capitals, with Brexit currently dominating EU-related talk. But there’s an undeclared war happening in Europe, and the latest developments show that it’s intensifying and has the potential to spiral out of control. Europe (and the rest of the world) cannot afford to ignore it.