Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea on Sunday (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 militarisation 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 militarisation 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 criticised 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.
Video of Russia's attack on Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Azov Strait. The video was taken and uploaded to the Internet by Russian sailors. pic.twitter.com/GZRl1Pmh2D
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) November 25, 2018
The FSB said it had been forced to act because the ships – two small Ukrainian armoured 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.
Local Crimean news site Kerch Info reports a large ship is now physically blocking the Kerch Strait, the only passage in and out of the Sea of Azov, as three Russian naval vessels and two military helicopters circle the Russian-built bridge there. https://t.co/eWvicBD0qv pic.twitter.com/uplYyFmk1B
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) November 25, 2018
“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.”
The FSB said three Ukrainian sailors were wounded in the incident and were getting medical care. Their lives were not in danger, it said.
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 mobilise to punish Russia.
— MFA of Ukraine ?? (@MFA_Ukraine) November 25, 2018
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.
Two Russian Air Force Su-25 flying at low altitude over the Crimean Bridge/the Kerch Strait Bridge area. pic.twitter.com/1VsjT6V6pX
— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) November 25, 2018
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.
Escalating tensions in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait have. 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 immediatelyhttps://t.co/TVDbVOvN7W
— Maja Kocijančič (@MajaEUspox) November 25, 2018
#NATO is closely monitoring developments in the #AzovSea & #KerchStrait, & we are in contact with the #Ukrainian authorities. We call for restraint & de-escalation. Read my full statement: pic.twitter.com/DDtfvNLa4K
— Oana Lungescu (@NATOpress) November 25, 2018
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.