Russian president's attack on Ukrainian warships marks a pattern of behaviour – strike while the world's attention is focused elsewhere
Putin has past form when it comes to his latest act of military aggression
It is typical of the way Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to do business that he should choose a crucial European Union summit as the moment to launch his most recent act of military aggression.
The latest military spat between Russia and Ukraine took place earlier this week when EU leaders were meeting in Brussels to sign off the Brexit deal that will allow Britain to undertake an orderly withdrawal from the EU in March next year – assuming, of course, that British Prime Minister Theresa May can win parliamentary approval for a deal many of her backbenchers have denounced as a sell-out to Brussels.
Brexit, so far as most of Europe is concerned, is a vital issue, one that is likely to shape the future of the continent for many decades to come, which explains why it is currently the pre-eminent issue of European politics.
An ideal moment, then, for Mr Putin to embark on his latest exercise in military mischief-making by attacking and seizing three Ukrainian naval warships in the Kerch Strait which, under international law, is designated as shared territorial waters.
Accusing the Ukrainians of illegally entering what Moscow claims is solely Russian territorial waters, Russian warships are reported to have fired at two Ukrainian vessels and rammed a third.
A few days later the captured Ukrainian sailors were brought before a Russian court after being filmed giving what Kiev claimed were forced confessions, with 12 of the 24 captured personnel being told they would be held in confinement for at least two months while their cases, and those of the other detainees, were assessed.
The obvious goal of this latest act of Russian sabre-rattling was to disrupt the ability of Ukrainian shipping – both military and commercial – to pass between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. To do so, they must sail through the Kerch Strait, which sits in close proximity to the Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed in 2014 following another act of unprovoked Russian aggression.
Under international law, the Kerch Strait is deemed to be shared waters. But since occupying Crimea, Moscow has adopted a different interpretation, arguing that Crimea and the Kerch Strait are now under Russian control.
Consequently, in recent months tensions have been building between the Russians and Ukrainians in the Sea of Azov over Moscow's insistence that Ukrainian vessels must first seek permission to operate in the area. Indeed, Russia claims last weekend’s incident, in which three Ukrainian vessels were seeking to make their way through the Kerch Strait to Ukraine’s naval base at Odessa, came about because of the Ukrainians’ failure to provide the Russians with prior notice of their actions.
The Russians further claim that the whole incident was orchestrated by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to boost his domestic popularity ahead of next year’s presidential elections. A committed opponent of Moscow, Mr Poroshenko has recently seen his popularity slip. Now, following the latest clash with Moscow, he has once again taken centre stage in Ukrainian politics, particularly following his decision to impose martial law over parts of his country amid fears the naval confrontation could lead to more serious acts of Russian aggression, including a wholesale invasion of Ukraine.
Such scaremongering is, in all likelihood, overstated and Russia’s claims that Mr Poroshenko is exploiting the crisis for his own political benefit will be tested if, as many of his political opponents fear, he uses the dispute as an excuse to postpone next year’s elections until his political fortunes have improved.
That said, we should still not lose sight of the fact that the Kerch Strait incident is a classic example of Mr Putin’s way of conducting acts of military aggression – a well-orchestrated, precise operation undertaken to achieve a specific objective at a time when the world’s attention is focused on other, more pressing issues.
We first witnessed the physical manifestation of the Kremlin’s approach in 2008 with Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia, which resulted in Moscow’s de facto annexation of the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Back then, the world was more concerned with ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were occupying the majority of the military resources available to major western powers, meaning that there was no political appetite in Washington or elsewhere to react to the Kremlin’s military assault on Georgia.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 is another occasion when Mr Putin adroitly took advantage of the world being distracted by other events to make his move.
On that occasion, it was the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, where many of the world’s leaders had assembled to attend the spectacular closing ceremony.
It was while they were nibbling on canapes and sipping drinks that Mr Putin gave the order to send in the tanks.
And it is precisely because the Russian autocrat has been allowed to get away these flagrant breaches of international law that he believes he can carry out further acts of military aggression with impunity.
There have, of course, been the usual calls from world leaders for both sides to show restraint and even calls for the G20 summit taking place in Argentina to consider imposing a new round of sanctions against Moscow.
I doubt, though, that there is any genuine desire on the part of world leaders to get involved in the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine, and that they will be far more interested in discussing pressing economic issues, such as the Trump administration’s trade war against China and the EU.
Which means, so far as Mr Putin is concerned, his latest is act of military aggression will, like those that have gone before, ultimately go unpunished.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor