International order must be based on the rule of law rather than the law of the jungle

Alexander Vershbow

US Ambassador (retired), Distinguished Fellow of the Atlantic Council of the United States


It is my pleasure to welcome readers to the first issue of the TRUMAN Index for 2019. The TRUMAN Index is an invaluable tool for scholars and policymakers alike, providing a comprehensive account of recent developments in Ukraine’s relations with the European Union, the United States, NATO, Russia and China.

The final weeks of 2018 witnessed dramatic and potentially ominous events in the Black Sea and Kerch Strait. On November 25, 2018, Russia mounted an illegal blockade and closure of the Kerch Strait, and illegally attacked and seized three Ukrainian ships, in clear violation of international law and bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreements. Unlike Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and its undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine, this was not an ambiguous, deniable attack by “little green men” without insignias: it was a direct act of aggression by Russia’s navy and security services against a sovereign state that was acting within its rights in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, whose waters are shared by Russia and Ukraine.

These actions can only be seen as premeditated, with the aim of destabilizing Ukraine in the run-up to the country’s 2019 elections and crippling its economy. The United States and European Union condemned these actions rhetorically, and demanded the return of the ships and sailors detained by Russia. But they have been hesitant to carry out any specific measures in response. If November’s events bring little more than a slap on the wrist, Russian President Vladimir Putin will see this as a green light for further escalation, to include a full blockade or even the illegal annexation of the Azov Sea, as well as new offensives in Eastern Ukraine.

The November 25 attacks were not a one-off event. Russia was intensifying pressure on Ukraine over the summer and fall of 2018 in small steps, similar to what took place with Moscow’s creeping aggression against Georgia in the spring and summer of 2008. This may be based on the hope that each small step will be met with nothing more than political protests by the West.

Other Russian actions look ominous in retrospect. All through 2018, there were incessant artillery and rocket attacks by Russian-led forces on Ukrainian military and civilian targets along the line of contact with occupied Donbas. Russia interfered with international shipping to and from Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk throughout the summer, inflicting significant losses on the local and national economy. The Kremlin imposed sweeping sanctions on Ukrainian companies and pro-Western business leaders in early November. The Russians also allowed the holding of elections in mid-November in the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, in flagrant violation of the 2015 Minsk agreements.

Moscow seems determined to make it look like Ukraine is a failed state that cannot defend its own borders—in the hope of bringing a more malleable leader to power in Kyiv in the 2019 election and reversing Ukraine’s rapprochement with the European Union and NATO. Ukraine’s sovereignty and its aspirations for a European future are clearly very much on the line—as is the credibility of the West’s commitment to an international order based on the rule of law rather than the law of the jungle.

Rhetorical condemnation by the United States and the European Union is necessary, but not sufficient. The US and its European allies need to impose real costs on Russia if it doesn’t reverse course, including tighter economic sanctions on Russian shipping companies, banks and individual Putin cronies involved in trade with illegally occupied portions of Ukraine.

The US and its allies should also expand NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea to demonstrate support for Ukraine and for freedom of navigation in international waters, which is being challenged by Russia’s actions. The United States and its allies should consider increased support to the Ukrainian Navy as well, including the provision of coastal defense systems for deployment along the Azov Sea coast. Without such measures, Russia will believe it can continue to escalate with impunity—today against Ukraine, tomorrow against the West.