I can’t claim to know anything about what’s going on in the Black Sea with those Ukrainian and Russian boats:
Sunday’s naval clash was off the coast of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian coastguard ships opened fire before special forces stormed the Ukrainian vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.
Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.
What I do know is that Russia is probably not playing a very smart game here. When I was in Perth I spoke to a Russian who was adamant that Russia had no choice to annex Crimea in order to prevent NATO warships from being within striking distance of their Black Sea coast. Now you could hold an entire seminar on the delusions Russians subject themselves to when justifying their seizure of Crimea, but I wasn’t going to start arguing geopolitics during a social visit. As I’m fond of saying these days, politics shouldn’t interfere with friendship.
Instead, I said that regardless of the rights or wrongs of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this will be a thorn in their side for generations to come. There are certain historical events which occur between two peoples at a particular time which one party is able to use as a stick to bash the other in perpetuity. Both the relative size of the parties and the timing are crucial, which allows a certain narrative to form which, regardless of actual facts, never goes away. Russia’s mistake was stealing land from a weaker neighbour at a time when Russia was itself weak and also generally disliked. When Stalin’s USSR annexed land from their neighbours, they were strong enough to brush off criticism and people’s attention was focused elsewhere in any case. Similarly, China’s land and sea grabs don’t seem to have become a stick which their enemies use to beat them, at least not effectively.
But the narrative has formed that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and is illegally occupying it. Even if their administration of the territory is eventually recognised by the international community, this will be an issue Ukrainians and those opposed to Russia’s ambitions will use to thwart them indefinitely. Ukraine is a complete dysfunctional basket case and will in all likelihood stay that way, whereas in 10, 20, 30 years time Russia might have reformed enough to want to play a more positive political, diplomatic, and commercial role around the world. Frankly, nobody knows what Russia’s future holds but it’s at least possible that whoever succeeds Putin might want to involve Russia more in global business, for example. They’re likely to find that, despite any character reforms they’ve undergone, a well-funded and influential lobby group will pop up at every point and turn and say “Ah, but Crimea”.
A good comparison is with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. No matter what Turkey tries to do, there is a small but effective body of Armenian lobbyists who say “Ah, but the genocide”. Like Russia with Crimea, Turkey decided to massacre the Armenians when they were too weak to set the narrative, losing the war months later and being occupied by foreign armies. It probably never occurred to the Turks that, a hundred years later when anyone with even memories of the event is now dead, the issue would be thrown in front of them like a tank trap every time they want to do anything in the US or Europe. I suspect most Turks wish they’d just left the Armenians alone.
The other similarity between the two cases is that neither issue can be resolved. No apology from Turkey can bring back dead Armenians, and I suspect even now the Russian presence in Crimea is so entrenched it can never be returned to Ukraine without enormous upheaval and more human rights abuses. But this is the beauty of it from a fanatic’s point of view: an insoluble moral objection is perfect, because it’s a club that can be used to beat your opponent again and again. Sure, this isn’t exactly productive from the point of view of the person wielding the club, but fanatics aren’t normally motivated by progress. I’m reminded of a comment I read recently from someone who’d spent a few minutes listening to an Irishman rant about the British:
“So what are you going to do, keep protesting until the last 600 years didn’t happen?”
Like the Armenians and Irish, Ukrainians have little to lose by throwing a spanner in the works of their larger neighbour’s ambitions in protest at their perceived historical beastliness (look at the behaviour of the Irish over Brexit, for example). Ukraine won’t suffer for it, and they’ll find plenty of support from whoever Russia has managed to make an enemy of that week. I reckon that, like the Turks with the Armenians, Russians will one day believe Crimea is a lot more trouble than it’s worth and they should have left it well alone. Where this will leave Putin’s reputation among Russians as a geopolitical strategic genius I don’t know.