Russians Advance the Ratchet Another Click in the Black Sea
Palau and the PRC are in the mix
Click, click, click.
Every new action has the potential to spin out of control, have unintended consequences, or light the fuse on a nuance no one really knew was there.
You don’t have to be a military historian to know where such things can lead.
The Russian military’s decision to fire warning shots and board a freighter in the Black Sea this weekend has added a new level of uncertainty to the increasingly intense maritime theater of war, as Moscow, apparently for the first time, made good on its threat to treat Ukraine-bound civilian shipping as potentially hostile.
The Russian Ministry of Defense on Sunday announced the action, which was confirmed by Ukrainian officials, and video verified by The New York Times shows a military helicopter hovering above the cargo ship Sukru Okan. A group of people in military gear can be seen walking on the deck and climbing into the helicopter, while eight men in civilian clothes — apparently the ship’s crew — sit nearby.
But it reflects the rising tensions on the Black Sea, which Western analysts have warned could escalate into violence involving countries not directly involved in the war. Russia’s warning last month about treating third-country shipping as hostile raised fears of armed clashes, and since then, Ukraine’s increasingly robust naval drone force has launched several attacks on Russian warships.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that on Sunday morning, its patrol ship Vasily Bykov detected the Sukru Okan — a small freighter listed at 2,155 tons and registered in the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau — bound for Izmail. The 34-year-old vessel is owned and managed by a Turkish company, according to Equasis, a major shipping database. The Times was unable to reach the owner for comment.
The patrol ship fired warning shots with automatic small arms, the Defense Ministry said, when the ship initially failed to respond to a request to stop for inspection to see if it was carrying any prohibited goods. The ministry said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that the Russian ship then sent a helicopter with a boarding team.
If the vessel was in international waters, it was not immediately clear whether Russia’s actions were allowed under the 1936 Montreux Convention, which covers the rights of naval vessels of belligerent nations to regulate commercial traffic on the Black Sea during a time of war.
Does Palau ring a bell? Of course it does. As you read CDR Salamander every day, you remember our discussion in early FEB 2022 before the Russo-Ukrainian War sucked all the oxygen out of the natsec air. I’d encourage everyone to re-read it, but here’s a Palau specific pull quote;
The reason why there is such alarm in some halls of American power right now is that the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) between the U.S. and these three nations should now be in the advanced stages of renegotiation before they expire in 2023 and 2024 in the case of Palau. Yet there is an unsettling lack of action on this front. In the case of the most complex negotiation, that with the RMI, there have been no formal meetings since December 2020.
In the context of escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, the COFA states have a unique position beyond their paramount strategic importance. Palau and the RMI are two of the last nations that diplomatically recognize the Republic of China government on Taiwan.
Sounds like Palau needs some strong friends. Right now, they are still leaning our way. If I were the PRC, I would see this as an opportunity - absent any actions or even words by the USA - to show Palau who is perhaps a better friend to have on the world stage. They don’t need to take action - just make a public statement. There are all sorts of ways the USA-PRC competition in the Pacific can be impacted in the Russo-Ukrainian War, this is just one.
The longer wars go, the more opportunity there is for expansion and mischief.
Don’t take your eyes of the details.