Reuters photo of Russian cargo ship blocking passage of Ukrainian vessels under new bridge as Russian military flies ahead (Click on photo for related story)

There’s A Hugely Dangerous Confrontation Going On Between Russia And Ukraine. Why Should Americans Care?

Emergency United Nations Security Council Meeting Set For This Morning

Update: Ukraine’s Parliament Monday supported imposing martial law, giving President Petro Poroshenko expanded powers for at least 30 days. One of our friends who knows a lot about the region pointed out to us that whatever the impetus, and regardless of who the instigator is here, the timing is fortuitous for Poroshenko, who has an election coming up and has been lagging in the polls. The IMF recently mandated a hike in fuel prices there. With winter coming, that might’ve triggered widespread protests. Now all of a sudden such protests are illegal.

The main concern is the potential for a full-fledged invasion by Russia following on its annexation of Crimea back in 2014, and how the U.S. and Europe would potentially react. Yes, in 2014 President Obama took little action to try to head off Russia’s action other than condemning it. Trump has often used it as an example of how it’s unfair to say he’s not tough on Russia when Obama wasn’t either. And he’s also asserted that in Crimea’s case, they’d “rather be with Russia”. That attitude, and Russia’s actions, led to the Senate and House passing sanctions against Russia by veto-proof margins, which Trump reluctantly signed but was slow to implement.

Over the weekend, through several rounds of escalating hostilities, Russia ended up firing on Ukrainian ships, and took three of them. (According to Ukraine-based reporter Christopher Miller, those three ships account for a large percentage of Ukraine’s armed fleet). Russia also placed a huge cargo ship lengthwise underneath a bridge in the Kerch Strait, like a cop car in a Hollywood movie, sealing off access and preventing any commercial ships from passing (as you can see from the photo at the very top of this piece). That newly-built bridge, which opened only this year, connects Crimea to the Russian mainland. The Kerch Strait is crucial to Ukraine’s economy, because it ships steel — its 2nd biggest export after food products — down from Mariupol through the Azov Sea into the strait and out into the Black Sea (as you can see from the map just below). The strait is Ukraine’s only access point from the Azov Sea to the rest of the region. Ukraine and Russia have an international treaty sharing the Azov Sea and allowing both countries to operate in those waters, which is probably less important to Russia right now, now that it has the bridge.

Ukraine’s Parliament should vote today on its President Petro Poroshenko’s request to allow him to operate the country under martial law, which would give him the ability to respond more unilaterally. At the same time, that also raises questions, #1 being how does that help to alleviate what is for now a maritime crisis?

Accusations are flying both ways: Ukraine accusing Russia of embarking on a dangerous new phase after repeatedly flouting international agreements following the annexation. And also of playing politics: President Putin’s popularity has sagged some recently, and the Russian public in the past has responded positively to actions designed to demonstrate he’s still a strongman.

Meanwhile, Russia says Ukraine’s leader forced the confrontation because he’s behind in the polls ahead of an election scheduled for early next year.

The European Union quickly issued a statement calling for Russia to stop blocking the strait. And “de-escalate the situation immediately”.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (yes she is still U.N. Ambassador) Tweeted only about the emergency U.N. meeting this morning, along with an alarming Retweet from a Heritage Foundation affiliated reporter in Ukraine, who calls the situation there “the most dangerous moment I’ve seen in Ukraine in years”.

While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so it’s not entitled to the protections a NATO member would theoretically get if attacked, it’s also not likely Europe and the U.S. would do nothing to counter a full scale Russian invasion, although using military force to get Russia to back off would be very risky and Russia knows it. So this is a situation that calls for preemptive economic and political pressure to head off any further action on Russia’s part.

It also will be a very important test for the strength of decades-old U.S.-European military alliances. President Trump pestered France several times over the weekend with Tweets such as this:

Of course, this Tweet makes zero sense: if France is benefiting so greatly by treating the U.S. “badly” on trade, why would French people be protesting? They should be celebrating! And while Trump is right about European countries footing more of the bill for NATO, he also tends to conflate trade with military issues, which also is dangerous.

The French protests, BTW, were over rising diesel fuel prices, which are now starting to come down on their own. (Although France did recently increase a hydrocarbon tax by about 30-cents per gallon for diesel).

Even though energy prices have been falling worldwide recently, those lower oil prices are something Trump’s also taking full credit for: Tweeting Americans should be saying “thank you President T” for that.