KIEV — It was a move both obvious and ominous.
Ukraine on Thursday seized a Russian-flagged oil tanker Thursday at the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Izmail. Kiev alleges the vessel was the same tanker used by the Kremlin to block the Kerch Strait in the violent naval clash between the two countries in the Sea of Azov last November.
Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors detained that day remain in Russian custody, including several sailors injured when Russian ships fired on the Ukrainian ships to board them.
Russian officials warned the government of new, untested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky there “would be consequences” if Ukraine took the 10-person Russian crew hostage for a possible prisoner swap. It seems Ukraine heeded that warning, with the Russian news service TASS reporting later Thursday that the Russian crew had been placed on a bus to Moldova and would be returned to Russia “in the near future.”
The tanker, by contrast, will remain in Izmail.
From a national sovereignty standpoint, it is understandable why the Ukrainians would seize the vessel if they had an opportunity. From a geopolitical standpoint, the ramifications are much more unnerving.
Ukraine just went through wrenching national elections, where Mr. Zelensky, a comic actor who once played Ukraine’s president on a TV program, won a decisive victory. Parliamentary elections this week handed Mr. Zelensky’s fledgling Servant of the People Party a big majority, which forced many corrupt, entrenched politicians out of office and put many inexperienced new MPs into power.
How the new government will reset relations with Moscow has been a big question mark.
Many analysts have worried Mr. Zelensky would be a puppet of oligarchs with business ties to the Kremlin. Ukrainian businessman and oligarch Igor Kolomoisky owns the TV station where Mr. Zelensky worked for years, providing a convenient conspiracy theory for the suspicious-minded — that Mr. Kolomoisky now had a president he could use to recover a bank the government nationalized years ago.
Perhaps the tanker incident is just Mr. Zelensky trying to blow up all those narratives and prove he is his own man. Perhaps the Kremlin is involved to give Mr. Zelensky cover, to show he is strong against Russia. The bizarre incident is open to multiple interpretations.
Why would Russia send a renamed tanker into Ukrainian-controlled waters? Why would Ukraine risk war with Russia by seizing it?
I have said before that the November incident in the Sea of Azov was engineered by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to poke the Russian bear and draw the U.S. and NATO into the conflict. Flush with new American weapons and support, Kiev’s move seemed deliberate, just as tracking a Russian tanker into port and seizing it is a deliberate act.
Mr. Zelensky has a lot to prove. The Ukrainian people have grown even more cynical, if that is even possible. One person told me in the capital this week, “The new thieves are going after the old thieves.”
And many believe the 2014 Maidan revolution, which ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, was engineered to beat the Kremlin, not for the good of the Ukrainian people.
“After Yanukovych was removed from power, the Americans forgot about the average Ukrainian’s life,” one Kiev resident told me.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, The New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached at LToddWood.com.
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