On Sea as on Land: New Russia-Ukraine Tensions Require Mediation and Negotiations in Good Faith


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

30 Nov 2018 – At the 26 November Emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, Rosemary DiCarlo, Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs said,

 “The United Nations is deeply concerned about this escalation of tensions which is taking place in the broader context of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.”

“This escalation” was an attack by Russian security forces on two Ukrainian warships and their tugboat guide passing through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov on the way to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.  A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine designates the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov as shared territorial water.  The 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty sets out clearly dispute settlement procedures for conflicts arising from the treaty.  The Association of World Citizens was particularly active as NGO participants in the decade-long Law of the Sea negotiations, one year in New York, the next in Geneva.  World Citizen and Harvard Law School professor Louis Sohn was particularly active in creating the dispute settlement provisions of the Law of the Sea Treaty.  Unfortunately, neither the Law of the Sea Treaty Court located in Germany nor other conflict-resolution mechanisms were called upon by Russia or Ukraine to study this particular issue.

The Security Council also agreed with the U.N. Under Secretary-General that the situation was dangerous and restraint was needed. Beyond stating the obvious, the Security Council decided to do nothing in the hope that the situation might calm down by itself.  As Russia is a member of the Security Council, Russia called for the Emergency Session and proposed the title of the agenda item: “Violation of the borders of the Russian Federation.”

The U.S.A. opposed the one-sided title of the agenda item and was followed by an agreement not to enter into the matter by a vote of seven for, four against, and four abstentions.  There is a vague hope that within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) negotiations on the issues might be carried out in the framework of what has been called the “Minsk Agreement” largely co-led by France and Germany. For the moment the OSCE has not made any public efforts at negotiation. However, both France and Germany said that they were ready to help in mediation, first of all to facilitate the release of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held by the Russian Security Service. At least three more are in a hospital having been wounded during the clash.

Ukraine has used the Kerch Strait events to impose a 30-day martial law decree, renewable once for 30 more days and limited to the areas near to the Russian frontier. In passing the martial law decree, the Parliament insisted that elections for President to be held on 31 March 2019 be maintained. The Ukrainian forces have been put on a “battle ready” status.

Both the political leaders of Ukraine and Russia probably wish to draw some political profit from the increased tensions.  The Minsk Agreements prevented an escalation of fighting at the start of the crisis in 2014, but no visible progress has been made since.  Thus, now on both land and sea tensions exist and could grow worse. On 29 November, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on NATO to send ships to the Sea of Azov to help protect Ukraine. He hoped that European States would take active steps, including increased sanctions and military protection.

However, for the moment, most Western leaders agree with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that

We can only resolve this in talks with one another because there is no military solution to all of these conflicts.”

Calls from the U.N. and Western leaders including the U.S.A. have suggested negotiations in good faith.  There has been less external “saber rattling” than one might have expected, but there is no agreed-upon forum for negotiations as of yet. In situations where governments are unwilling or unable to act, there may be a role for non-governmental organizations.

The Association of World Citizens has been active in proposing the need of appropriate, con-federal forms of governance within Ukraine and trans-frontier cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. However cries of new structures of governance have largely fallen on deaf ears.  Hopefully, the current tensions will be a moment for creative proposals on both sea and land.

On 11 November while the French President Emmanuel Macron was warning the assembled heads-of-government in Paris on the dangers of the narrow nationalism which had led to the 1914-1918 war, people in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics of eastern Ukraine were voting in an effort to strengthen narrow nationalism.  Since 2014, the eastern, largely Russian-speaking populations of eastern Ukraine have created two republics: Donetsk and Luhansk.

For those who support these people’s republics, the separation from Ukraine was justified by the long-standing cultural and economic ties to what is now the Russian Federation.  For those who oppose the two republics, the republics are only agents of Moscow to weaken the Ukrainian Government and its pro-European Union policies.

Fighting broke out between Ukrainian forces and those of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics almost at the start helped by Russian military in unmarked uniforms.  The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union were quickly concerned fearing that violence would spread.

The Russian Federation organized elections in Crimea, then part of Ukraine. The majority in Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation, which then annexed Crimea in March 2014.  The European Union and the United States did not recognize this vote as legitimate and opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The European Union and the U.S.A. initiated economic sanctions against the Russian Federation on the Crimean issue. These sanctions are still largely in place.  The sanctions have had a negative impact on the Russian economy as well as on the European Union which had to replace the Russian Federation for its products.

Fighting between Ukraine and the separatist Donetsk-Luhansk forces was limited after negotiations held in Minsk in September 2014 and February 2015.  Since then the armed conflict has been “frozen” but with periodic armed attacks and frequent shelling. It is estimated that over 10,000 people have been killed.  The economy of Donetsk and Luhansk, important from industry during the Soviet period, has been largely destroyed.

The Association of World Citizens has been actively concerned with the armed conflicts in Ukraine, the two People’s Republics and the increased tensions between the Russian Federation with the European Union and the U.S.A.  The Association has made proposals for con-federation, autonomy, and trans-frontier cooperation in the conflicts which arose from the breakup of the Soviet Union: Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistra in Moldova, Nagorno Karabagh still torn between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as the ill-fated Chechen Republic within the Russian Federation.  Unfortunately, none of these constitutional proposals were acted upon, and each conflict remains “frozen” but with many people displaced.

In each case, there should be creative thinking on constitutional issues concerning questions of the balance of power between central and local governments, on issues of authority among the executive, legislative and judiciary, as well as means for trans-frontier cooperation as each unit is tied to the areas of which it had been a part.

With Ukraine, the conflicts have brought to the fore questions of historic memories, of language, of the geographic base of power, of political ideologies and even the structure of the Orthodox churches. Seen from a distance, there seem to be few socio-cultural bridge-builders to deal with day-to-day relations among people, on their willingness to cooperate,      and reconciliation of historic divisions.

For the moment, the 11 November elections have only confirmed existing leadership within Donetsk and Luhansk.  Thus, today, we have strong tensions on both land and sea.  With a certain amount of good will, the tensions could be reduced. The tensions arise from fears rather than from structures.  Russia fears that Ukraine will join NATO.  Ukraine fears that its economy will be deeply harmed by Russian economic measures such as making it difficult for cargo ships to use Mariupol port.  The times call for creative proposals and open discussions.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Dec 2018.

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