Over the weekend, Russia has decided to block Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea; it’s placed a cargo ship under the Kerch Strait Bridge, which Russia completed earlier this year to give it direct land access from Russia to Russian-occupied Crimea, and Russia has military helicopters orbiting above the bridge. The Kerch Strait is a bit under 2,000 feet wide where the bridge sits.
This followed the Russian Black Sea Navy’s aggression against a Ukrainian flotilla of no military significance—a Ukrainian Navy tugboat and two Ukrainian Navy artillery ships—that was transferring from Odessa on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast to Mariupol on the Ukrainian Sea of Azov coast. The Russian ships deliberately rammed the Ukrainian tugboat, damaging the latter’s hull and engines, and then the Russians seized the three Ukrainian ships.
The question arises concerning why Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen this naked escalation. A number of possible answers arise, also.
One is to serve as a military demonstration of force for Ukraine’s benefit, executed to enforce Russia’s illegal “elections” in its eastern occupied Ukraine.
Another is to distract from his doings in the north: his meddling in Baltic State elections, his cyber aggressions against them, his movement of tactical nuclear weapons closer to his borders with them.
Another is to distract from renewed troubles with his second natural gas pipeline, currently under construction, that would connect Russia with Germany under the Baltic Sea.
Another is for the aggression against Ukraine to serve as a demonstration for the attention of Germany regarding that pipeline and for the attention of Moldova as the latter works to tighten its ties with NATO Europe and to resist Russia’s attempt at Ukraine-style occupation.
Another is as a domestic distraction. Russia also is currently is deeply into a demographic crisis. Nearly 30% of the Russian population is 55 years old or older, and that per centage is growing. Russia’s current fertility rate—births per woman—is 1.61 against a necessary 2.01 rate just to maintain a given population level. Russia’s current birth rate of 10.7 births/1,000 population compares badly with its current death rate of 13.4 deaths/1,000 population. With an in-migration rate of 1.7 migrant(s)/1,000 population, that still leaves Russians dying faster than they’re being born and gaining immigrants combined. Consistent with that, Russia’s population is shrinking—by 0.11% this year.
Russia’s per capita GDP has fallen by 3% since its nearby peak in 2013: Russians are individually poorer than they were, even with a slight increase in the current year, even as Putin spends Russian treasure on all of his foreign adventures. Note that this shrinkage in individual prosperity is mitigated by that shrinking population—were it growing, instead, the increasing poverty would be much worse.
Or some combination of all of those distractions.
Note, though, that as of Monday, Russia seems to have lifted its Sea of Azov blockade, but it continues to hold the Ukrainian ships and crews.