The Kerch Bridge Incident Points to Wider Issues


On 25 November this year, three vessels of the Ukrainian navy approached the Kerch Strait which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland. They came from the Black Sea side of the Strait, which leads in turn to the Sea of Azov.1

Passage of shipping through this narrow Strait is governed by general international law and in the case of Russia and Ukraine by a specific treaty signed between the two countries on 24 December 2003.

It is clear from the detailed timeline released by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on 26 November that the actions of the Ukrainian ships were in violation of both the treaty and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Subsequent to the seizure of the three Ukrainian vessels by the FSB, documents discovered on one of the ships clearly indicated that the ships were under instructions to act “covertly” in passing under the Kerch Bridge.

There is no obvious innocent reason for the ships to act covertly. The treaty provides specific procedures for transiting the narrow strait. These arrangements are primarily for safety reasons, but also the legitimate security concerns of the Russian Federation, also guaranteed under UNCLOS.

Given that the ships were also traversing Russia’s territorial waters there is no question that Russia had appropriate jurisdiction to direct the Maritime traffic.

UNCLOS also provides a right of “innocent passage” (Article 19) and that term is clearly defined in the Convention. For the detailed reasons set out in the timeline provided by the FSB including but not limited to the uncovering of artillery installations on board the ships and directing them towards the Russian naval vessels, the Ukrainians were manifestly not in “innocent passage.”

Western reporting of the incident however, has seen a repetition of their stale arguments about “Russian aggression.” There have been constant references to Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea. The usual intemperate voices in the United States have demanded that NATO ships be sent to the Sea of Azov, which betrays a fundamental ignorance of geography, let alone Russia’s defensive capabilities in that region.

Many commentators have assumed that what was manifestly a Ukrainian provocation was staged by President Poroshenko to bolster his ability to stay in office beyond May’s scheduled elections where he faces almost certain defeat. The Ukrainian parliament clearly thought so, as his declaration of martial law was limited to 30 days and otherwise heavily circumscribed.

No one in the western media sort to explain why martial law was needed at all. Instead, as noted above, their approach has been almost exclusively to reiterate their claims about Russia in general and Crimea in particular.

As such, they demonstrated yet again that the mainstream western media is not the least interested in history, law or logic.

Historically, Crimea has never been part of Ukraine. Various ancient empires have at various times subjugated it, most importantly until 1774 when the Ottoman Empire ceded Crimea to Russia under the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in July of that year.

In 1954 the Crimean oblast was transferred from Russia by an administrative procedure of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (of which Ukraine was then a part) to Ukraine. The people of Crimea were not consulted.

Ethnically, culturally and linguistically Crimea was essentially Russian. Ukraine itself did not become an independent nation until 1922, as a constituent state of the USSR. It separated from that status, along with multiple other states in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated.

After the legitimate sovereign government of Ukraine was overthrown in an American organized and financed coup in February 2014, Crimea resolved not to be part of what was a despotic, neo-Nazi and vehemently anti-Russian government. This is an aspect of Ukrainian history that the western media refuses to acknowledge as relevant to any understanding of events in Crimea.

In marked contrast to 1954, Crimea held a referendum on whether or not they wished to rejoin the Russian Federation. More than 83% of the population voted in that referendum, and 96.7% voted in favour of rejoining Russia.

Despite this, the western media persist in using the term “annexation” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary defines annexation as adding territory, without right, and especially by conquest. That was manifestly not the case in Crimea.

There are two other recent historical examples that highlight the blatant western hypocrisy about Crimea’ s re-integration with the Russian Federation.

In 1967 as a result of the Six Day War, Israel occupied the Syrian component of the Golan Heights. In 1981 the Israeli parliament passed an Act purporting to annex the Golan Heights to Israel’s territory.

That was an annexation in the true sense of the word. It was utterly without legal justification. Israel has ignored repeated UN General Assembly resolutions for the Golan Heights to be returned to Syria.

The point here is that Israel has not been subject to sanctions by the Western powers for its illegal conduct. Nor are there regular editorials in the western mainstream media denouncing Israel’s aggression and unlawful conduct.

The second example relates to Kosovo. The Kosovo parliamentary assembly made a unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008, determining to break away from Serbia. The International Court of Justice delivered an advisory opinion on 22 July 2010, which held, by a majority, that the declaration of independence did not violate general international law because international law contains “no prohibition on declarations of independence.”

A minority of countries recognise Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and Australia, two of the foremost critics of Crimea’s referendum and its subsequent rejoining the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, they do not acknowledge the illogicality of their position.

Kosovo has no seat in the United Nations. It is essentially a gangster state and a major conduit for Afghanistan heroin into the European market. It is also home to Camp Bondsteel, one of the United States’ largest military bases in Europe and so secretive that it is closed to inspectors from the Council of Europe.

The contrast between the Western responses to Crimea where the overwhelming majority of its population exercised what the International Court of Justice said in the Kosovo context was their lawful right, and the course of events in Kosovo and the Golan Heights could not be greater.

By indulging Poroshenko’s manipulative, undemocratic and Russophobic behaviour, the west not only demonstrates its hypocrisy, but it also ignores the lessons of history when self interest overcomes a law based and rational approach to international affairs.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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