Why the Russian-Ukrainian clash in the Kerch Strait?

Introductory note

News outlets have reported the recent clash between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov in the Russian-Ukrainian border region.

This article, which I have translated from the website of a Russian anarcho-syndicalist organization, explains the confrontation in terms of domestic politics in the two countries.  

The article is accompanied by the cartoon reproduced here. As the flags indicate, the left side represents Ukraine and the right side Russia. The identity of the fighters is also marked by their facial hair -- 'Cossack' topknot and mustache for the Ukrainian, beard for the Russian. The caption reads: 'Keep going in the same spirit, idiots!' -- Stephen Shenfield  

‘They’re pushing patriotism again – it means they’ve been thieving.’ This saying is said to come from the great [nineteenth-century Russian] satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin. Or maybe not: some say it is apocryphal. In any case, it is very popular among critics of the regime in Russia.

And it accurately describes what lies behind the incident in the Kerch Strait.

Who has the right to Crimea; in whose waters occurred the latest confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian warships; whether or not a warning was given; whether ships could have been stopped without opening fire – these are all matters for specialists in international law and military tactics or for political speculators. As ordinary people we are concerned with the sources of the current growth of militarism in the region and the dangers it entails.

The current exacerbation of Russian-Ukrainian relations more than ever reflects the growing domestic political problems of the regimes in Kiev and Moscow. The anti-social neo-liberal policies of the ruling elites in both countries are running up against increasing public discontent. In Ukraine the government of President Poroshenko recently sharply raised the price of natural gas, as the IMF had demanded. This led to many residential heating systems being turned off, sparking angry street protests in November in a number of cities. In Krivoi Rog people stormed the building of the gas company and turned on the heating themselves. In other places streets were blocked. Poroshenko is now the butt of popular hatred: under his presidency extreme poverty has increased by tens of percentage points. And presidential elections are due next year.      

But the situation is potentially no better in Russia. After the elections of spring 2018 the government of President Putin unleashed a frontal neo-liberal assault on the population. As a result of the pension reform his popularity and that of his ruling party have fallen to an unprecedentedly low level. Old patriotic themes such as talk about ‘Russia rising from its knees’ or the euphoria surrounding unification with Crimea are losing their potency. Ruling circles are in urgent need of a new issue to distract the public.

In similar situations the powers that be have often taken the risk of ‘a small victorious war’ [a phrase used to motivate Russia’s war with Japan in 1905 and Yeltsin’s war against Chechnya in 1994 – tr.]. But in today’s Europe such games are too dangerous. At least, starting a war deliberately is too risky. But militarist hysteria remains a well-tested and effective political instrument. Unpopular politicians do their best to present themselves as ‘strongmen’ standing up to the ‘geopolitical adversary’. By stirring up fears of the ‘danger from without’ they aim to unite and mobilize the population in the name of the ‘national idea’ and thereby deepen the chasm between rulers and ruled.

Two questions remain. First, how much longer will people in Russia and Ukraine fall into such traps? And second, how great is the risk that the situation will unintentionally get out of control and militarist hysteria escalate into a real military conflict? In today’s world of capitalist militarism, unfortunately, it is impossible to answer such questions in advance.    

Source: http://www.aitrus.info/node/5182 (website of the Confederation of Revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalists, Russian Section of the International Workers Association, 8 December 2018). Original title: ‘Kerch Maneuvers of the Powers That Be’