Russian border patrol ships attacked and seized three Ukrainian vessels on Sunday near the Kerch Strait, off the coast of Kremlin-annexed Crimea. While Russia described the attack as a legitimate reaction to Ukrainian vessels violating its territorial waters, Kiev called it an unprovoked act of Russian aggression.
In the aftermath of the incident, the first open clash between Ukrainian and Russian forces, lawmakers in Kiev voted for martial law to be imposed in regions bordering with Russia.
On Sunday morning, two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat were intercepted on their way to the port city of Mariupol by Russian patrol boats. As the flotilla was approaching the Kerch Strait, a Russian coast guard ship rammed the Ukrainian tug. Russian fighter jets and helicopters were also deployed in the area, while bulk freighters blocked access to the Kerch Strait.
Later that day, Russian ships opened fire on the Ukrainians and stormed the vessels. As a result of the attack, over 20 Ukrainian sailors were captured and between three and six were injured.
Hours later the Russian FSB security service confirmed they used force against the Ukrainian flotilla, claiming the Ukrainian vessels violated Russia’s national waters after failing to adequately inform the authorities of their transit through the Kerch Strait. Also, according to Russian authorities, the vessels did not comply when asked to stop and instead engaged in “dangerous maneuvers,” pointing their artillery at Russian patrol vessels.
However, the Ukrainian navy claimed the Russians were advised that the ships were taking that route and denied they acted aggressively. Moreover, Kiev said no violation of Russian territorial sovereignty took place because they still consider Crimea to be part of Ukraine.
Right after the incident, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “a dangerous provocation” orchestrated by Kiev. His statement was echoed by other Russian officials and Pro-Kremlin media. However, Ukraine disputed Moscow’s claims, accusing Russia of “unprovoked armed aggression.”
NATO and the European Union sided with Ukraine, calling on Russia to restore freedom of passage in the Kerch Strait and immediately release the seized vessels and their crew members. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia had “no justification” for carrying out the attack.
During an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Monday, US representative Nikki Haley lashed out at Russia’s “latest reckless escalation.” Because of the sharp disagreement between Russian and Western representatives, the UN meeting did not lead to any meaningful resolution of the escalating confrontation.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday signed an executive order imposing martial law in the country in order to “strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amidst increasing aggression”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday signed an executive order imposing martial law in the country in order to “strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amidst increasing aggression.” The document was later ratified by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Martial law, due to take effect on November 28, may limit citizens’ constitutional rights and impose restrictions on the media and public rallies.
However, with Ukrainian presidential elections approaching and the campaign scheduled to start on December 31, martial law will last just 30 days instead of the 60 initially proposed by Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.
Separating the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland, the Kerch Strait connects the Black Sea with the Azov Sea. According to a 2003 agreement, both Ukrainian and Russian vessels can navigate freely through the strait into the Azov Sea. However, tensions in the area have been rising since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, reaching a peak after the recent opening of a bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland.
The Ukrainian authorities have been complaining for months about Russian border guards harassing and slowing down their vessels passing through the Kerch Strait. While the Russians claim searches are necessary to prevent attacks against the Kerch bridge, the Kremlin’s critics suspect Russia of carrying out a “creepy annexation” of the Azov Sea and slowly turning it into its own internal sea.
In eastern Ukraine, Kiev’s troops have been engaged for over four years in a conflict with pro-Russian separatists that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. Though Russia has been actively supporting the separatists for the duration of the conflict, Sunday’s incident is the first time Russia has openly engaged Ukrainian forces in an armed confrontation.
Some analysts see the incident as a provocation orchestrated by Russia to destabilize Ukraine, as the country approaches its presidential elections in March 2019. Also, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be using the escalating conflict with Ukraine as his latest tool to distract Russian citizens from worsening socio-economic problems in the country.
On the other hand, the Kremlin and other voices critical of Kiev say that Ukrainian President Poroshenko is the one benefiting the most from an escalating confrontation with Russia, as it will likely improve his currently plummeting approval ratings ahead of upcoming elections.