Tension Runs High Between Moscow & Kiev As Ukrainian Sailors Wounded, Naval Vessels Seized
Russia has used force against Ukrainian naval ships in the Kerch Strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, injuring six servicemen and detaining three naval vessels.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said it detained three Ukrainian naval vessels, accusing them of violating its territorial waters in the area of the Kerch Strait.
The Ukrainian naval vessels - the Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yani Kapu - violated the Russian border on 25 November and made another attempt to carry out illegal actions within the limits of the territorial waters of the Russian Federation, a statement by the FSB press service read on 25 November.
It added that the naval vessels failed to respond to legal demands from FSB vessels that they halt immediately and carried out dangerous manoeuvres. Ukraine said its Berdyansk small armored artillery boat and the Yani Kapu tugboat were towed away and the Nikopol small armored artillery boat was blocked.
The three-ship flotilla had been sailing from Odessa port to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov when a Russian Border Service vessel rammed the Ukrainian tugboat in an apparent effort to intercept the flotilla as it approached the Kerch Strait on the morning of 25 November. The Ukrainian flotilla decided to press on anyway, and was subsequently fired on by Russian ships, Ukraine said.
Ukraine denounces Russian 'armed aggression'
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in a statement on November 25 condemned Russia's attack on Ukrainian patrol boats in the Kerch Strait.
The attack on Ukrainian ships carried out during a sea crossing from the port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol in accordance with the provisions of all effective multilateral and bilateral international treaties and navigation rules are nothing but another act of armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine… Russia has de facto expanded its military aggression against Ukraine in the sea, the statement read.
"The Kremlin’s criminal regime has today once again demonstrated that it will not stop its aggressive policy and is ready for any acts of aggression against the Ukrainian state. Ukraine demands urgent medical assistance to the wounded servicemen and their immediate safe return home. Ukraine also demands the return of the captured naval ships and a compensation for the damage done. It is the Kremlin’s regime who bears full responsibility for the further aggravation of the situation in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea," the statement added.
"Ukraine urges its allies and partners to take all necessary measures to deter the aggressor, i.e. by applying new and strengthening existing sanctions, as well as by providing Ukraine with military assistance to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty within the internationally recognised borders," the Foreign Ministry concluded.
Europe condemns Russia's 'aggressive' actions on sea
Several European nations and the EU expressed deep concern at a violent incident in the Kerch Strait as a result of which Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval boats and injured several sailors.
Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy led by Federica Mogherini, said: "… We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately."
Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen described Russia's actions "aggressive" and extended full support to Kiev, saying ”Russia must restore free passage at the Kerch strait."
The Polish Foreign Ministry accused Russia of "breaching the principle of freedom of navigation".
"Today's dramatic escalation of tension in the Azov Sea waters, which resulted in injured sailors and damaged vessels of the Ukrainian navy is a result of Russian Federation's consistent breach of basic international law principles, including the violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," the ministry said.
Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas described the incident as a "serious breach of international law". "I condemn Russia's seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels, blocking of the Kerch Strait and aggression against Ukraine. I support the European Union and NATO's call for a de-escalation of the tense situation," he said.
Russia raps Ukraine for using 'bandit methods' in sea standoff
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed Ukraine for using "bandit methods" in the standoff between the two countries over the Kerch Strait.
"Now they have set about the Kerch Strait. Highway bandits and bandit methods: to start with provocation, pressure through force and then accusations of aggression," Maria Zakharova said.
Earlier today, Ukraine accused Russia of illegally blocking access to the Sea of Azov, the other side of the Kerch Strait, and of ramming one of its naval vessels off the coast of annexed Crimea.
EU urges de-escalation
Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea on 25 November after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors, in a move that risks igniting a dangerous new crisis between the two countries. The EU has called for de-escalation.
The militarization by Russia of the Azov Sea was on the agenda of the EU ministerial last week.
According to information obtained by EURACTIV from the Ukrainian side, the militarization of the Azov Sea followed the construction of a new bridge across the Kerch Strait linking mainland Russia and Moscow-annexed Crimea.
Kyiv considers the construction of this bridge unlawful and the EU has criticized what it calls another assault on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Russia’s FSB security service said early on Monday its border patrol boats had seized the Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea and used weapons to force them to stop, Russian news agencies reported.
The FSB said it had been forced to act because the ships – two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat – had “illegally” entered its territorial waters, attempted “illegal actions”, and allegedly ignored warnings to stop while manoeuvring dangerously.
Russia claims the territorial waters of the annexed Crimea peninsula, effectively shutting down Ukraine from the Kerch Strait. The developments are seen as a Russian strategy to block Ukraine from the Azov Sea and international shipping, and from transforming it into a military outpost.
Russia has moved warships from the Caspian Sea to the Azov Sea, after it obtained guarantees from the other four Caspian littoral states last August that they would not allow foreign military presence.
The crisis began on Sunday after Russia stopped the three Ukrainian ships from entering the Sea of Azov by placing a cargo ship beneath the bridge.
“Weapons were used with the aim of forcibly stopping the Ukrainian warships,” the FSB said in a statement circulated to Russian state media.
“As a result, all three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized in the Russian Federation’s territorial waters in the Black Sea.”
With relations still raw after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the incident risks pushing the two countries toward a wider conflict.
Ukraine denied its ships had done anything wrong, accused Russia of military aggression, and asked for the international community to mobilize to punish Russia.
The UN Security Council will meet on the latest developments at the request of Russia and Ukraine, diplomats said.
Poroshenko proposes martial law
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met his top military and security chiefs. Poroshenko said he would propose that parliament impose martial law.
A Reuters witness said Russia backed its blockade with at least two Sukhoi Su-25 warplanes that screeched overhead. Russian state TV said Russian combat helicopters had been deployed in the area.
The Ukrainian navy said on social media six Ukrainian sailors were wounded in the subsequent seizure of its ships, which appear to have been rammed and boarded, and that the Russian attack on them had occurred after they had retreated and headed back toward Odessa, the Black Sea port from where they had begun their journey.
“After leaving the 12-mile zone, the Russian Federation’s FSB (security service) opened fire at the flotilla belonging to the armed forces of Ukraine,” it said in a statement.
The European Union said in a statement it expected Russia to restore freedom of passage via the Kerch Strait and urged both sides to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation. A NATO spokeswoman issued a similar appeal to both sides.
Risk of wider conflict
A bilateral treaty gives both Russia and Ukraine the right to use the Sea of Azov, which lies between them and is linked by the narrow Kerch Strait to the Black Sea. Tension has risen since Russia annexed Crimea, with both countries complaining about shipping delays and harassment.
Russia’s border guard service accused Ukraine earlier on Sunday of not informing it in advance of the three ships’ journey, something Kyiv denied.
Russia said the Ukrainian ships had been maneuvering dangerously and ignoring its instructions with the aim of stirring up tensions.
Russian politicians denounced Kyiv, saying the incident looked like a calculated bid by Poroshenko to increase his popularity ahead of an election next year.
In another sign of rising tensions, Russia’s state-controlled RIA news agency reported on Sunday night that Ukrainian forces had started heavy shelling of residential areas in eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Reuters could not independently confirm that and the Interfax news agency cited separatists as denying there had been any unusual escalation.
One of Russia’s goals, according to Ukraine, is getting a land corridor to the occupied Crimea.