UkraineAlert

The past several days have been historic ones in Ukraine’s development as a sovereign and democratic nation. Moscow’s unprovoked attack on and seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea on November 25 began this process. This attack represents a serious escalation of Kremlin aggression because it was done openly by regular Russian military forces. Moscow was not hiding its role—as in the Donbas—behind the fiction that local “separatists” were running a rebellion.

Russian naval forces first rammed one of the Ukrainian boats and then opened fire. Ukrainian communication intercepts show that Russian commanders on shore gave their ships orders to undertake this action and noted that the situation was being monitored by senior officials in Moscow. The Kremlin was likely trying to provoke the Ukrainian ships into firing in order to justify a larger Russian military response. Moscow successfully used this tactic to start its 2008 war with Georgia, but Ukraine wisely did not take the bait.

In response, President Petro Poroshenko convened Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which recommended that the government declare a state of martial law covering the entire country for two months. 

For many in the West, “martial law” conjures up images of dictators and troops strutting down city streets in fatigues.

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Many Western observers would like to see a change in Ukrainian leadership following the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Some would prefer to see a young MP from parliament’s Euro-Optimists group become president; others hope the country’s next leader will come from one of Ukraine’s new parties, such as Democratic Alliance or Power of the People.

The most likely scenario, however, is that Yulia Tymoshenko will become the next president, and that her party’s share in parliament will significantly increase. It is possible that Petro Poroshenko will remain president, but as of November 2018, Tymoshenko is the leading candidate. And for the parliamentary race, her party leads in the polls with a significant margin.

What will happen if the former prime minister, her party, and their allies take over government next year is difficult to predict, but the West should prepare now for that possibility.

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Russia’s act of aggression against Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea on Sunday should not be dismissed as an isolated incident in its four-and-a-half year old war against Ukraine. This pre-meditated attack is part of a broader effort by Moscow to take full control of the Kerch Strait—a strategic chokepoint that connects Russia to Crimea and separates the Black and Azov Seas. Control over the Kerch Strait gives the Russian navy complete dominance over the Sea of Azov, whose only direct outlet to international waters is through the strait.

Such maritime dominance would allow Moscow to effectively blockade the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, two major commercial gateways in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely betting that by suffocating the fragile war-torn economy in eastern Ukraine, he can sow opposition to Ukraine’s central government and eventually blackmail Ukraine into some sort of accommodation.

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Two major risks are clouding Ukraine’s economy and holding back investment and economic growth.

One of them is politics. In 2019, the country will hold both presidential and parliamentary elections, in the spring and autumn, respectively. These will be the second elections since the 2014 revolution, and their outcomes will determine whether the country continues on its current course of modernization and integration with the West, or whether it will slide back into stagnation.

With such high stakes, it is no wonder that most investors are cautious and prefer to wait for the elections’ results before investing their money in the Ukrainian economy.

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On November 25, Russia opened fire on three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and then seized them. On November 26, Kyiv imposed martial law in ten regions for thirty days as a response to the attack.

Contrary to Russia’s previous military presence in Crimea or its military support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, both of which the Kremlin initially denied, this incident is an act of open and unmasked aggression against Ukraine.

The question is, why now?

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On November 25, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels as they were preparing to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The Russian Coast Guard rammed a Ukrainian tugboat and fired on the three Ukrainian ships, injuring up to six crewmembers. Twenty-three Ukrainian sailors are now in Russian custody.

This is the first direct naval engagement between the two countries’ militaries since the early days of the conflict in 2014.

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On November 25, Russia attacked Ukraine again. It was a vivid reminder that Ukraine is at war and the situation can escalate at any time. Three Ukrainian vessels were shot at and seized by Russian maritime forces. Twenty-three Ukrainian sailors are now in Russian captivity. It's the first time Russia has openly attacked Ukrainian forces.

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On November 25 Russian vessels blocked Ukrainian ones from entering the Sea of Azov, fired on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, rammed some of those ships, seized three Ukrainian ships, and wounded six in these exchanges. Russia also dispatched helicopters to the area to maintain surveillance and fire capability over any approaching Ukrainian vessels. By any standard, these are acts of war. We should remember that the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812 because of such incidents. Second, Moscow’s claim to own Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Kerch Strait as inviolate Russian territory is wholly illegal. Russia’s claims rest on nothing more than force directed against supposedly weaker targets. We can be sure that it would not behave this way toward a NATO ally. 

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On November 25, Russia fired on the Ukrainian Navy in the Black Sea, injuring at least two Ukrainian sailors. Many experts have warned that Russia is opening a new front in its forgotten war in Ukraine on the Black and Azov Seas, illegally boarding commercial Ukrainian vessels and increasing its military presence to about 120 patrol boats and ships. The Russian MFA twitter feed is full of insinuations about a Ukrainian provocation. 

We asked Atlantic Council experts and friends the following: How should Ukraine respond? How should NATO and the West react to this latest round of Russian aggression? What would it take to force the Kremlin to stop its menacing actions in Ukraine and around the world?

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It’s Black Friday in Kyiv, Ukraine, and retail is booming. Abundance is everywhere. Like everywhere else, Black Friday sales are plastered on store windows around town.

For Ukrainians, this reality comes in shocking contrast with the events of 1933 eighty-five years ago. Ukraine was breadless and in crisis. Corpses littered the streets in central and southern Ukraine, then part of the USSR.

William Henry Chamberlain, the American journalist and Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor traveled to Ukraine in October 1933. He only reported what he saw in 1934, after he had permanently left the Soviet Union. He famously said: “There was no other catastrophe of such scale in human history that would have drawn so little attention of the world.” Chamberlin’s book Russias Iron Age was one of the few, if not the only, comprehensive contemporary views on the effect of Russia's five-year economic plan, and the famine which devastated parts of the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, during 1932-1933. 

This year—as is the tradition on the third Saturday of November—Ukraine is commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor, a man-made, politically induced famine which took the lives of over four million Ukrainians. This famine was an instrument of the national policy of the Bolsheviks and their last effort to conquer the resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry against the Soviet system. 

Fast forward to today. Many are shocked by the tactlessness of shops which nevertheless advertise their sales with a "Black Friday" message. Just one day before every Ukrainian is asked by the National Memory Institute to light a candle in memory of the innocent victims of the Holodomor, the Black Friday craze begins. It’s beyond tone deaf.

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