We live in a world of post-truth. Everyone has his own “facts,” his own truth. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia annexed the ‘truth’ for the Russian public and proxies around the world. Adding the Crimean Peninsula meant new borders, new territorial waters and new conflicts. Closing the Kerch Strait by building the bridge connecting continental Russia with its new territory meant that large ships are disallowed, effectively imposing illegal control of traffic, blocking access to and from the Ukrainian coast of the Sea of Azov, including the towns of Mariupol and Berdyansk. The EU and U.S. are looking closely and pondering how to respond – from a safe distance, as usual. They will not interfere – except with sedative lecturing.
Chancellor Merkel cherishes Nord Stream-2 more than Ukraine as a shield of Europe and the main containment tool for Russian aggression. Trump cancelled his meeting with Putin at the G-20; Merkel and Macron did not. Appeasement is the baseline in EU policy to mitigate Russian risks. It won’t work.
The worst is yet to come because this Russian blockade aims to tear apart Ukraine and cut off a substantial part of it from direct link with the world by sea, leaving it defenseless. By choking these Ukrainian provinces in Russia’s bear embrace, this territory of Ukraine can be relatively easily overwhelmed by a land and sea invasion, within the revived concept of Novorussia. Thus, Putin hopes to once again feed the unhappy Russian citizens with another dose of patriotic hype.
Moscow’s propaganda warfare is at full throttle, releasing ‘confessions’ by the captured Ukrainian soldiers. Ask yourself, what value would such “testimonies” bear in court? Every sensible person will tell you that confessions “hold water” only when made by free people. It is worth recalling that people captured by terrorists regularly ‘confess’ in front of cameras when their life is threatened.
Most believe that the captured Ukrainian sailors, as done by the Somali pirates, will be used as a bargaining chip, trading them for ransom – political concession or propaganda. Most probably the ceremony of their release will copycat previous mediation efforts by western politicians, like Merkel, reminding everyone that Putin is in charge.
What matters is, from now on, Russia will treat the entire Sea of Azov as its inner sea, which spells future trouble and fresh storms. The question is not whether Poroshenko has a low rating or what his reelection chances are. Regardless of the choice made by Ukrainians in March, the Ukrainian president will have to fight and defend the territorial integrity of his country and confront Russia under Putin. Cannons will speak, people will die.
The Russian president has always sought revenge against the West, exploiting soft spots where NATO is unable to project its power. The Sea of Azov is such a case. NATO, with Merkel and Macron deciding, will never send warships on a visit to Mariupol.
Russia is unable to counteract against sanctions, but it hits back at weaker allies, especially those outside NATO’s range of defense commitments.
International maritime law provides every coastal state free access to the sea and ocean. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) explicitly states, ”All ships, including foreign warships, enjoy the right of ‘innocent passage’ within another state’s territorial sea under international law.” Moscow, however, writes its own laws. There is no sound international legal basis for the closure and unilateral control of traffic through the Kerch Strait. Moscow is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and has neither denounced nor sought changes to the bilateral Ukraine-Russia treaty on the shared use of the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov.
The bigger concern is that Putin is already working for his place in history, and this further adds to his unpredictability. He does not want to end his rule with the loss of Ukraine – because this fact, for people familiar with the history of Russia, will irreparably ruin his image. Russia without Ukraine is a striking loss, greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union. To remedy the situation, Putin will do his utmost, regardless of cost, pain and casualties, to implement the Novorussia project clandestinely by using his private armies to penetrate Ukrainian territories around the Azov Sea. But before he conquers them military, he will seek to stifle them economically. In addition, he is looking for a convenient excuse for military intervention, as he did in Georgia. Militarization is the only background against which his rule may seem acceptable to his compatriots.
It is hard to foresee the details of the endspiel in the current crisis because the West is divided, slow and obsessed with its own problems. My first reaction at the new crisis was that there would be no special consequences for Putin – because there is no Reagan in the United States, nor Kohl and Thatcher in Europe. The cynicism of European politicians is difficult to digest for anyone who judges current politics against historical coordinates. At the same time Putin tries to choke Ukraine with his pincers’ strategy – the two gas pipelines, Nord Stream and TurkStream – the German chancellor is pretending innocence, pledging business only with Russian gas, ignoring the overwhelming geopolitical agenda. In order to position Berlin’s policies on Nord Stream-2 as “European,” Angela Merkel has deliberately lied to Europeans, assuring them that she had guaranteed current levels of transit through Ukraine.
She is not alone. Influential circles in the EU and the U.S. still believe in the merit of Putin’s appeasement – naivety at its best or worst. Judged against the current background of formal notices on the cancellation of transit through Ukraine, served by Gazprom to its clients in Central and South East Europe, Commissioner Vestager’s decision not to impose fines on Gazprom in the anti-trust case, seems ludicrous and outright betrayal to East Europeans. Whatever obligations the Russian gas company had ‘voluntarily’ undertaken on flexibility of delivery points are meaningles and decry deception move, making the EC look outwitted.
The Kremlin will exploit every gap in the Western shield to destroy it. No negotiation, no intermediate options, just full and unconditional surrender. Europe is not a military force – Germany refuses to take its common defense share, even less so to engage in fortifying the sovereign base of EU policies. Britain is exiting, leaving sour taste both at home and abroad. France has been engulfed in a mix of homegrown troubles and Kremlin-funded campaigns, with little to no resources for external activity on a European scale. Protests in France follow the standard Russian hybrid warfare pattern – real dissatisfaction multiplied manifold by a targeted digital campaign on the social networks by Russian secret services.
The Kremlin is all in arms, engaging proxies in the EU, to shape the elections for the European parliament, as it has managed to shape the Bulgarian Parliament and elect friendly politicians. Parties and politicians close to Russia have successfully blocked joint decisions to strengthen NATO and EU defense potential. In time, history might repeat itself with Moscow managing to split Western and Eastern Europe and engage with Western EU leaders, as it was in the times of Catherine the Great. In Putin’s mindset, the EU, in many formats and at multiple velocities, means one thing – the end of Russia’s isolation and the return of spheres of influence. Fostering centrifugal forces in the EU is a prime objective as Western EU countries retreat into benign neglect, while eastern states seeks individual survival tracks. Some look to America for protection, others succumb to Moscow. The lack of adequate leadership in Europe is dire.
Bulgaria will hardly restore the degree of total dependence on Russia, not the least because the Kremlin can not offer an alternative to the EU and NATO.
Bulgaria-Russia trade relations are bound to dip further, as exports are flat at sanitary minimum levels, and imports are bound to decrease in line with EU liberalization and diversification drive, as market shares of Russian companies inevitably shrink from monopoly to dominant to major status. Further collisions between EU legal and regulatory framework and Russian driven exemptions – the Belene NPP and the new South Stream Lite disguised as the Balkan Gas Hub – are inevitable. Lukoil’s dominant position will experience further curbs, regardless of attempts to secure continuation of privileged status.
Such conflicts help to mark the line of division in the Bulgarian nation on the fundamental issue of the detriment of the Russia’s imperial policy. A part of society is unable to define national interests independently, outside their context and relativity vis-a-via Russia. A vocal and determined, albeit small contingent of Bulgarians, prefers to upkeep its loyalty and prioritize allegiance to the Kremlin as a fundament of its personal and family wellbeing, as a safeguard against the West’s influence and the EU’s rules and regulations, ignoring team play and shared national interests with the rest of Bulgarian society.
It is suffice to look at the uncertain official reaction to the crisis in the Sea of Azov and the large consensus in the Bulgarian Parliament on the extension of TurkStream, which serve Russian geopolitical interests and help it strangle Ukraine.
In retrospect, such moves recall the days of Bulgaria’s entry into the First and Second World War on the wrong sides, without proper checks of options and risk assessment. A major part of the current Bulgarian ruling elite frets the notion of life without corruption and privileges, having to abide by rules and compete in the open for market share and the popular vote. They have literally hijacked the democratic process, imposing a deeply vicious development pattern, serving the few, while ignoring the majority.
Bulgarians have ceased to strive for the best, both for themselves and their country. They have gotten used to mediocrity in domestic and foreign policy.
Little wonder why Russian propaganda is proliferating in most, if not all, of the medial channels and helps shape a timid look into the origin and the future of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.