Recent events in the Black Sea have thrust Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine back into the international headlines, but for ordinary Ukrainians, it never went away. Over the past four and a half years, Ukrainian society has grown grimly familiar with a unique brand of creeping Russian aggression that has been carefully calibrated to cause maximum damage while avoiding the crippling costs implicit in a more conventional campaign. Russia’s hybrid hostilities have extended far beyond the country’s thinly veiled military intervention in eastern Ukraine, with Moscow also making use of targeted assassinations, cyberattacks, trade embargoes, and disinformation campaigns to keep Ukraine permanently destabilized and to prevent the country’s final escape from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Throughout it all, the one constant has been a desire to disguise Russian involvement. This emphasis on plausible deniability made Russia’s November 25 naval attack on three Ukrainian vessels a watershed moment. For the first time since the start of the conflict in spring 2014, Russian forces operating under the Russian flag had openly attacked Ukraine.
The reaction in Kiev reflected the perceived broader significance of the incident. The immediate issue at stake was access to Ukraine’s Sea of Azov coastline, home to some of the country’s most economically important ports. Ukrainian officials also saw the naval attack as a deliberate escalation in the conflict and a potential precursor to a full-scale land offensive, coming as it did amid reports of a significant buildup of Russian army units along the Ukrainian border. The country’s National Security and Defense Council was duly convened and called for the imposition of martial law. A watered-down version of this proposal was then confirmed by parliamentary vote, allowing for martial law in ten border regions for a 30-day period. Ukraine has since barred most military-age Russian males from entering the country while martial law is in place.
Inevitably, this interpretation of events has been vocally contested by Russia. Moscow has labeled
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