EU calls for de-escalation after Russia fires on and seizes Ukrainian ships in Azov Sea

Russia claims the territorial waters of annexed Crimea ( in red). In addition to its own terrirorial waters (in purple) this effectively shuts down Ukraine (territorial waters in brownish) from access to the Kerch Strait and the Black Sea.

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.

EU ministers to discuss militarisation of Azov Sea

EU foreign ministers will discuss a range of issues in Brussels on Monday (19 November), including for the first time the militarisation of the Azov Sea, which according to diplomats has been effectively blockaded by Russia.

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.

Putin opens new bridge to Crimea, provoking Ukraine, Western ire

President Vladimir Putin drew condemnation from the US, Europe and Ukraine on Tuesday (15 May) after he opened a new bridge linking mainland Russia and Moscow-annexed Crimea by driving a truck across it to the peninsula.

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 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.

Caspian Five settle row over sea’s legal status, demarcation pending

Leaders of the five Caspian littoral states met on Sunday (12 August) for the Fifth Caspian Summit in Kazakhstan’s port city Aktau to sign a landmark declaration determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea and aiming to end the legal limbo over its resource-rich waters.

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.”

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.

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.

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