Wag the dog in Ukraine?

What was the Kerch incident really about?

Ukraine''s President Poroshenko visits a Ukrainian Armed Forces airbase in Vasylkiv
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko addresses servicemen of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at an airbase in Vasylkiv near Kiev on December 1, 2018 [Reuters]

On November 25, Russia attacked and seized three Ukrainian gunboats and their crew while they were attempting to transit into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The move caused a wave of international condemnation, with Ukraine claiming it signalled renewed Russian aggression and pleading with NATO to confront Russia in the Black Sea region.

On the surface, it seems this is just the latest iteration of the Russian-Ukrainian military and political confrontation which the Maidan revolution sparked back in 2014. In March that year, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and used hybrid forces to start a civil conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

The Kerch Strait separates Russia proper from Russian-controlled Crimea and connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. In the aftermath of the annexation, Russia built a bridge across the strait, which Ukraine never agreed to.

On paper, movement in and out of the Sea of Azov for Ukrainian ships is regulated by a treaty signed in 2003 between Ukraine and Russia, which gives free access to vessels from both countries. Since the Crimea bridge was completed earlier this year, Russia has been impeding traffic of commercial vessels bound for the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and after last week’s incident, it has virtually imposed a blockade on it.

Given the subsequent exchange of accusations between Ukraine and Russia, it is important to make a number of points clear.

Does Ukraine have the right to send gunboats from Odessa to the Sea of Azov as it did in the prelude to the Kerch Strait incident? Yes, it does.

Can it test Russia’s patience by ignoring demands to get a permit in order to pass through the strait, as these boats did? Sure it can, as per the Russian-Ukrainian 2003 treaty.

Should Ukraine protest the arrest of its men and the seizure of its boats, as well as plead with its Western allies to interfere? It absolutely should.

Is it ok for Ukraine to exaggerate the significance of this incident and claim an imminent Russian invasion is being prepared? Well maybe, if it helps to repel the aggression in the long run.

The discourse on the Kerch Strait incident seemed fairly straightforward until the evening of that day when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko summoned his defence council for what felt like a pre-rehearsed session aired live on TV. The martial law he invoked at that meeting would have given him the right to ban political parties and rallies, detain people without a warrant, seize property and close media outlets. It also explicitly bans any kind of elections during the state of emergency.

The Kerch incident did not appear to warrant such a drastic measure, especially since nothing like that was introduced at the height of the war in 2014 and 2015, when Ukrainians soldiers were dying by the hundreds, if not thousands, in the battles for Ilovaisk, Debaltseve and Donetsk airport.

Liberal Ukrainian commentators read this announcement as an attempt to tamper with the upcoming presidential elections. With the official start of the campaign just a month away, polls are showing that Poroshenko is set to lose to the firebrand former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Investigative journalist and MP Serhiy Leshchenko, who has come to represent the spirit of the Maidan Revolution, wrote a scathing op-ed, comparing Poroshenko’s martial law with the dictatorial legislation his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, proposed in the heady days of the Maidan revolution to suppress the protests. In the first lines of his piece, he also mentioned Wag the Dog, a Hollywood film about a US president staging an imaginary war to save himself from electoral defeat.

As he spoke in the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, on November 26, Poroshenko was clutching a stack of papers which he claimed contained intelligence data about an imminent large-scale Russian invasion. On many previous occasions, when middle-ranked Ukrainian officials warned about “imminent” attacks, there were few indications of Russia preparing anything and eventually, all of them failed to materialise. But the top level of Ukrainian leadership crying wolf is something entirely new.

Ukrainian MPs didn’t quite buy this fear mongering. After a heated debate, a compromise was reached, which Leshechenko later described as “face-saving“. State of emergency under martial law was introduced to only 10 of Ukraine’s 27 regions for 30 days instead of 60, as suggested initially.

This means that it will end before the official start of the presidential campaign at the end of December. Thus Poroshenko will lose the chance to postpone the election and to shorten his rivals’ campaign by a month while enjoying exclusive daily access to TV as a leader saving the country from aggression.

But even in its diluted form, the state of emergency may serve Poroshenko’s purposes. A key feature of his election campaign is the struggle for the creation of a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in place of several churches, the largest of them controlled by Moscow.

He has succeeded in securing the backing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, who has promised to grant it official canonical status. A few days after the Kerch incident, the Constantinople patriarchate announced that the text of this decision had been agreed upon by its council.

But this project can only be completed if property of the church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate is seized, particularly the highly symbolic super-monasteries known as the lavras.

Days before sending vessels to the Kerch Strait, Kiev tested the waters by rescinding the registration of buildings within the Pochayiv Lavra operated by the church loyal to Moscow in the west of the country. On Monday night, news came in about security agents searching Moscow Patriarchate buildings in Zhytomyr and Kiev on dubious grounds.

However, it is another, infinitely more famous, monastery whose historical and political importance could easily spark a conflict that would justify the imposition of martial law: The Pechersk Lavra in Kiev is the Mount Zion of Russian Orthodoxy. An attempt to seize it would cause an upheaval in Russia and would force Putin to respond, whether he wants to or not. There is little doubt that contingency plans for such an eventuality are being drawn up in Moscow and preparations are being made on the ground. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.