Russia has rejected the German government’s proposal to deploy monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. The mission would have been tasked with monitoring shipping in those two bodies of water and report on interference with freedom of navigation (see EDM, December 3, 5, 10).
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made this proposal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, aiming to mitigate Russia’s interference with Ukrainian and international shipping in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. The obstruction of commercial shipping (arbitrary stop-and-detain in the sea by Russian gunboats, deliberate bottling up of ships in the strait by Russian port authorities) had become systematic in recent months (see EDM, February 22, April 12, May 22, 31, June 11, 28, November 6). And the situation reached a point of crisis with the November 25 attack and capture by Russia of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crew as they tried to enter the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29).
With those actions, Russia widened its war against Ukraine from land to sea, and from a bilateral military aggression to a general disruption of international commerce in those bodies of water. These forms of horizontal escalation are unprecedented in Russia’s conflict undertakings against neighboring countries. Russia’s latest actions perturbed Western European diplomacy’s accustomed conflict-management model, namely de-escalation and “conflict-freezing” in uneasy cooperation with Russian diplomacy.
Chancellor Merkel responded with three instruments of cooperative conflict-management that Berlin had, in part, initiated and helped to develop since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine. These instruments are Merkel’s telephone hotline to Putin; mediation in the “Normandy” format (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France); and the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, which observes the armistice in the Donetsk-Luhansk area on land, and would now be expanded to a maritime environment. The German and French governments, however, rejected proposals to use the fourth instrument at their (and the European Union’s) disposal, namely an uptick in the limited economic sanctions already in place against Russia.
Instantly responding to Russia’s November 25 attack on Ukrainian vessels, Germany and France notified the European Union of their intention to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and to involve the OSCE’s SMM in the maritime domain. By the same token Berlin and Paris ruled out other EU members’ suggestions—via the EU’s Austrian presidency—to add new sanctions on Russia. The Germans, in particular, argued that adding sanctions would jeopardize the diplomatic handling of the situation (Die Welt, November 28). Although Germany always makes a point of seating the diminished France at a corner of the “Normandy” table, the French government was practically invisible in this instance, engulfed in a crisis at home. On the other hand, Germany’s novice Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas (a young Social Democrat in the Christian-Democrat-led government) emerged as an active player in tandem with Merkel and even in the lead role at times.
Merkel met with Putin during the G20 summit in Argentina, on November 30–December 1, and proposed involving the OSCE’s SMM in the Azov-Kerch situation. Merkel elicited Putin’s consent to the holding of a “Normandy” meeting, at the level of their top advisors, in Berlin, on December 11, in order to draw up a mutually agreed concept for such a mission. Immediately following the Buenos Aires meeting, however, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, declared that “Kerch” cannot be a topic for discussion in the “Normandy” format (Interfax, December 2). The special significance of this exclusion seemed to have gone unnoticed in Berlin.
On December 6, Foreign Minister Maas brought up the idea of an OSCE SMM operation in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait during the OSCE’s year-end ministerial conference in Milano. Unlike most OSCE conferences, this one enjoyed heavy attendance by media and many interested lay parties. Maas did not mention the German proposal in his speech; but he did bring it up in separate discussions with the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Pavlo Klimkin, respectively. The issue under consideration was to expand the SMM’s mandate (and, presumably, its size), so as to cover the Azov-Kerch area as well. According to Maas, speaking informally, Lavrov reacted “very, very skeptically,” while Klimkin found the idea “reasonable,” albeit with the reservation that international involvement is a task for the United Nations primarily (Ukrinform, December 6; Deutsche Welle, December 7). Klimkin apparently was careful to avoid interference with the US-Ukrainian proposal for a UN-led peacekeeping operation in Donetsk-Luhansk, which has been under consideration in a separate US-Russia negotiation format (see EDM, September 22, 2017; Interfax, May 10, 2018; Reuters, June 11, 2018).
Lavrov lifted a curtain’s corner on the German proposal in his concluding press conference at the OSCE’s Milano meeting. Russia’s top diplomat came close to dismissing the proposal, both on formal grounds (the OSCE SMM has a specific mandate, is confined to specific areas of Ukraine) and intrinsically: the proposed observation and mediation are unnecessary in the Azov-Kerch area, whereas “the solution is that the rules of passage should be strictly respected,” clearly implying Russian-made rules. Still, “nobody will forbid [i.e., Putin allows] discussing the proposal in Berlin on December 11, Lavrov declared (RIA Novosti, December 7; see accompanying article).
Merkel initiated a telephone call to Putin on December 10 to discuss (at the top of several items) the OSCE SMM’s proposed expansion. Merkel additionally sought (as had Maas from Lavrov) the release of captured Ukrainian sailors and the vessels. A telling discrepancy exists between the two official readouts of the phone call in terms of geography: Berlin’s readout referred to “the Kerch Strait” while the Kremlin’s readout referred to “the Azov Sea and Black Sea,” excluding the Kerch Strait. The Kremlin’s readout was, apparently, another missed warning (Bundeskanzlerin.de, Kremlin.ru, December 10; see accompanying article).
On the same day, in Brussels, the Council of the European Union, at the level of foreign affairs ministers, convened to prepare the EU’s biannual summit, scheduled for December 14. This summit is to discuss the prolongation of European sanctions on Russia at the regular, six-month interval. Approval of the prolongation (“rollover”) is a foregone conclusion in the political context of the Azov-Kerch events. However, Maas—speaking for Merkel as well as on his own authority—made a point of ruling out any new sanctions. In his logic (like Merkel’s), new sanctions would be incompatible with the goal of de-escalation in the Azov-Kerch theater and beyond it (Auswaertiges-amt.de, December 10).
The “Normandy” meeting took place as intended on December 11, in Berlin, at the level of top advisors. The location (in or near Berlin) remained undisclosed, and the German government’s chief spokesperson merely confirmed that the meeting dealt with “de-escalation and dialogue” (Deutsche Welle, DPA, Ukrinform, December 11, 12). The main participants in the meeting are known to have been Jan Hecker, the head of the foreign policy department of Merkel’s Chancellery, and Kostyantin Yeliseyev, the deputy head of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration and the coordinator of Kyiv’s conflict-resolution diplomacy. The Russian and French participants have yet to be publicly identified.
This meeting failed to produce Russian acceptance for extending the OSCE SMM operation to the Azov-Kerch area. The Russian side attended the Berlin meeting only to reject the German proposal. Another meeting in the same format is intended to be held in January, to discuss some other ideas that Germany might present.