December 2, 2018 12:10 pm
Updated: December 3, 2018 4:08 pm

How will NATO respond to Russian sea attack on Ukraine? Expect ‘very reluctant’ response: expert

WATCH: Former State Department official and Columbia University professor Stephen Sestanovich tells Mercedes Stephenson he thinks the Russians will back down a bit from their aggression against Ukraine once they see Ukraine back down.


Concrete actions against Russia for seizing Ukrainian ships and two dozen sailors as prisoners of war last weekend may be unlikely at this week’s NATO meeting.

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That’s because the countries attending will likely not want to rock the boat and risk drawing Russia into further confrontations, said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, in an interview with the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson.

READ MORE: Russia seized Ukrainian ships and sailors, then blamed ‘banditry’. Here’s what you need to know

“NATO ministers and NATO governments are going to be very reluctant to do anything that creates a new risk of military confrontation but they are thinking about it,” he said.

“Various NATO governments have proposed upgrading NATO presence and operations in the Black Sea but this is a pretty dicey situation and they don’t want to make it worse.”

WATCH BELOW: Tensions escalate after Russia seizes Ukraine naval ships

On Nov. 25, Russian coast guard ships blockaded the Kerch Strait and rammed then seized three Ukrainian naval vessels passing through.

The Kerch Strait is a key waterway from the Sea of Azov, on which several significant Ukrainian ports are located, into the Black Sea.

Access to the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov is crucial for Ukrainian economic interests because steel and agricultural products are shipping along that route to major trading partners on the Black Sea, including Turkey.

READ MORE: ‘Outrageous violation’ — Russia pressured to release Ukrainian sailors and ships

But the Kerch Strait is adjacent to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and claims as theirs.

Despite a 2003 treaty stating that the Kerch Strait is shared territory, the Russians treated it as theirs and tried to block access through the waterway.

That prompted an emergency meeting of the United Nations on Nov. 26, when the Ukrainians called for allies to slap a new round of sanctions on Russia.

Britain’s MI6 chief cautions Russia: Do not meddle in the West

So far, there has been no imposition of those sanctions but speaking from the G20 meeting in Argentina on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called for Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors it is holding as “prisoners of war.”

Freeland, along with fellow G7 foreign ministers, also released a statement on Friday stating that Russia had “no justification” for its use of force.

“We urge restraint, due respect for international law, and the prevention of any further escalation. We call on Russia to release the detained crew and vessels and refrain from impeding lawful passage through the Kerch Strait,” the statement read.

“We, the G7, once again reiterate that ‎we do not, and will never, recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and we reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.‎”

WATCH BELOW: Freeland condemns Russian seizure of Ukrainian ships

Sestanovich said the meeting of NATO ministers could take a similar tone and will likely urge a de-escalation.

The foreign ministers attending the meeting will also assert their support for Ukraine and make it clear to Russia that there will be consequences for continued aggression, he said.

“If you continue to put pressure on Ukraine, there’s going to be a world of hurt ahead of you,” he predicted the message will be.

It remains to be seen what the response from Russia will be or what steps might be taken to secure the return of the Ukrainian sailors by allies.

But Sestanovich said if Russia’s pattern of behaviour in recent years holds, it may still step back — at least, for now.

“My prediction is the Russians, having tested the waters as they normally do, will back away a little bit from this so as not to have a rapid escalation,” he said.

“When they put more pressure on Ukraine, they want it to stick and they just want the Ukrainians to back down.”

The NATO foreign ministers meeting takes place Dec. 4-5 in Brussels.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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