building bridges is usually a good thing. But Russia’s Crimean Bridge, spanning the Kerch Strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea (see map), has been more flashpoint than pacifier since it opened six months ago. On November 25th Russian forces shot, rammed and then seized two Ukrainian warships and a military tugboat sailing towards the bridge, and their ports beyond. Six sailors were wounded and 24 captured in the process. It marks the first time that Russia has owned up to an attack on Ukrainian forces, four years after its surreptitious invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea led to a war that has killed over 10,000 people, and still rages. On November 26th, as the country’s armed forces were placed on full alert and the United Nations Security Council prepared to meet, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, called for martial law.
The crisis did not emerge from the blue. It is the culmination of six months of growing Russian pressure on Ukraine’s eastern ports, whose sole outlet to the Black Sea, and thence the Mediterranean and the world, has been steadily squeezed. In May Russia moved five ships, including artillery and missile boats, from its Caspian flotilla to the Sea of Azov, following Ukraine’s detention of a Russian fishing boat there on March 25th. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and coast guard have since detained scores of Ukrainian and international merchant ships for hours and even days at a time—over 140 between May and August alone—in what amounts to an undeclared blockade. Russia’s decision briefly to park a tanker across the Kerch Strait after the clash was a less than subtle reminder of this tightening noose.