Every story has a starting point. Don’t start with the Russian capture this week of two (or three) Ukrainian ships and the injury to three (or six) Ukrainian sailors. The Russian habit is to do as it likes with smaller countries and then announce that the other guy did it (or it never happened at all). That is the story of the Russian war in Ukraine and the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, and that is the Russian story of the Ukrainian ships – two ships, not three, three injured not six; anyhow, Ukraine was sailing out of its lane.
Start instead with the bridge over the narrow Kerch Strait that opened earlier in 2018. The waterway is the only entrance to the Azov Sea from the Black Sea; the new bridge connects the Taman Peninsula in Russia and the Kerch Peninsula in Crimea. Earlier plans for the bridge were completed between Russia and Ukraine, but that was before the Russians occupied Crimea. There is an agreement for Ukrainian passage to its two ports along the Azov Sea, but Ukraine has complained that the bridge is the beginning of a blockade that would ultimately control or end Ukrainian shipping. There have been delays for Ukrainian ships passing through, sometimes days, and oh, by the way, the bridge is very low – nearly flat – over the water, meaning that Ukrainian ships over 115 feet can’t pass at all. And now there is a Russian ship parked under the bridge, blocking traffic.
It is estimated that Ukrainian shipping through the strait is down nearly 25% since the bridge opened – as the Ukrainians feared and as the Russians planned.
Neither the United States nor NATO has an obligation here – Ukraine is not a member – but freedom of navigation is one of the defining principles of international law. The United States faces countries chipping at the edges of it elsewhere – China in the South China Sea and Iran in the Persian Gulf, with plans for Yemen on the Red Sea. Giving Russia a pass will make the other cases more difficult.
WWRRD? What would Ronald Reagan do?
During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iran attacked Kuwaiti, then other Gulf State, then other non-combatant tankers and merchant ships. Shortly thereafter, Iraq took the same steps. In 1986, Kuwait asked to have the U.S. Navy escort its tankers as protection, but U.S. law forbids escorting civilian vessels under a foreign flag. So the ships were reregistered and reflagged, and both Iran and Iraq decided that the cost of attacking American-flagged ships outweighed the benefits. The operation lasted until late in 1987.
President Donald Trump has proven, as Ronald Reagan did, that he is willing to take measures commensurate with the scope of an international problem.
In 2017, Russia’s ally Syria used poison gas on rebel territory. Unlike the Obama administration before it, which had failed to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons use, the Trump administration struck at Shayrat air base from which the raids took place. The Jewish Policy Center wrote at the time:
The first Russian response – after a furious announcement that they were tearing up the deconfliction agreement with the U.S. in Syria (they quickly thought better of it) – was to report that planes had flown from the base, so the U.S. attack had been a failure. Not so. Photos from the UK Daily Mail clearly show that hangars, fuel storage, airplanes, and service buildings were destroyed, confirming the Pentagon’s assessment. An Israeli report indicated that 58 of 59 Tomahawks hit. Flying some planes to al Shayrat and rolling them down abandoned runways is typical Russian obfuscation – the planes didn’t come from there, can’t stay there, can’t be maintained there, and can’t be refueled there. As punishment, the strike was a success.
The strike was designed not for “regime change” or to end the Syrian civil war, but to punish the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, its protector Russia, and its banker Iran. It set a precedent later, when Syria tried it again and received commensurate punishment. That is how norms are upheld.
Freedom of navigation is the same. During the Obama administration, the Iranian navy had been harassing U.S. ships with impunity, including boarding a cargo ship flying the flag of the U.S. Marshall Islands in 2015 and capturing two U.S. navy vessels and detaining the crews in 2016. In 2017, the Iranians recalculated the relative costs and benefits of angering President Trump, and the incidents declined dramatically. There has been none such reported in 2018.
These are not easy things for a president to decide to do. American lives were at risk during the reflagging and the bombing raids in Syria; they are at risk today in U.S. Navy exercises in the South China Sea. The job for the administration is to have Russia – and China and Iran – understand that freedom of navigation is a principle for which the United States is prepared to take those risks.
That’s what Ronald Reagan did.