- - Sunday, December 2, 2018

On Nov. 25, the Russian navy attacked and captured three Ukrainian navy vessels approaching the two-mile wide Kerch Strait. The Strait is the only passageway from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea and two of Ukraine’s largest ports.

Russia claims that the Ukrainian vessels — two patrol boats and a tug — were sailing illegally in Crimea’s territorial waters which the Russians “temporarily” closed to shipping. Ukraine insists that the ships were in international waters.

Instead of warning the Ukrainian ships off or escorting them out of the disputed area the Russians chose to attack. Russians opened fire injuring several Ukrainian crewmen and one Russian craft rammed the Ukrainian tug boat.

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That action signals a decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to break the stalemate in his war against Ukraine which, in turn, is the geographic sequel to Russia’s conquest of Crimea.

Nearly five years ago, Mr. Putin ordered the conquest of Crimea. His troops — whom the West called his “little green men” — wore Russian uniforms without any insignias to identify them as Russian. Crimea was conquered quickly and, in March 2014, it was formally annexed by the Russian Federation.

By using his “little green men” to conquer Crimea, Mr. Putin overthrew a European world order which hadn’t seen the military annexation of one country by another in more than half a century. His next target was Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite, on Crimea’s northern border.

Viktor Yanukovych, a comprehensively corrupt politician closely allied with Mr. Putin, served as Ukraine’s president for four years and was deposed by the “Maidan revolution” in 2014. Since then, Russian troops have tried, and failed, to conquer Ukraine by invading its eastern Donbas region. Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists are fighting alongside them.

Donbas was a heavily industrialized region that was home to more than 6 million people and produced about 16 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. About 10.000 people have been killed and as many as 2 million have reportedly been displaced. It is a humanitarian crisis the West has ignored.

Ukraine asked for military aid but President Obama denied it, sending only “non-lethal” supplies. President Trump has since sent weapons, including the anti-tank rockets for which the Ukrainians had been pleading. So far, the Ukrainians have been able to fight the Russians to a stalemate.

Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk are the primary exporting facilities for nearby steel plants and grain from the region. Black Sea shipping has to pass through the Kerch Strait going to or from either port. In the Nov. 25 incident, the Ukrainian vessels were headed to Mariupol, near the entrance of the Kerch Strait.

Russia has built a bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea with Russia. A Russian ship reportedly blocked the Strait during the naval action to prevent the Ukrainian ships’ passage through it.

The Russians insist that because they had “temporarily” closed these waters to shipping the Ukrainian vessels’ attempt to pass through them was illegal.

A U.N. Security Council emergency session on Nov. 26 predictably failed to defuse the crisis. Ukraine has declared martial law in Donbas, fearing Russian military action that could threaten its March presidential election.

Only Vladimir Putin and his “siloviki” government clan — politicians whose careers began in the Russian KGB, GRU and other intelligence agencies — know how they will try to capitalize on the Azov Sea incident. What will they do next?

Mr. Putin has been attempting to choke off shipping to and from the Mariupol and Berdyansk ports by harassing ships going to or from them. This attack is a major escalation.

Russia has published videos of Ukrainian crew members “confessing” their ships acted improperly. Ukrainian President Peter Poroshenko has said the two nations are on the brink of war.

Is Mr. Putin seeking an excuse to launch a major military offensive in the Donbas region? Is he planning to use the Ukraine conflict as a diversion for another military adventure?

Mr. Putin is too smart to take the shortcut of a major war to obtain the goal of Russian annexation of Ukraine. More likely — actually almost certain — is Mr. Putin’s course of action to be a “siloviki” approach to Ukraine that was successful in the takeover of Crimea.

One hint of that approach is found in a “Sputnik” news website report of the Kerch Strait incident. Sputnik, a government-controlled media outlet, reported that, ” As the ships approached the Kerch Strait, FSB vessels went on to pursue the intruders ” FSB is, of course, Russia’s Internal Security Service, one of the successors to the Soviet KGB from which Mr. Putin was promoted into politics.

An intelligence agency, not the navy, was in charge of the incident to ensure it was handled their way.

Mr. Putin is most likely to take increasingly provocative actions, to erode Ukrainians’ confidence — and ours — in the Ukrainian government. Russia will interfere in Ukraine’s March election and use cyber attacks to interfere with government functions as it did in Estonia in 2007.

If Mr. Putin does all this, he may be able to so gravely undermine the Ukrainian government that another Yanukovych-like politician, entirely under his thumb, could be installed in Ukraine’s presidency. It would be an intelligence coup of the first magnitude. And right up Mr. Putin’s alley.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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