Ukraine demands Russia release vessels


November 26, 2018 - 11:05 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine’s president demanded today that Russia immediately release Ukrainian sailors and vessels seized in a standoff around Crimea that sharply escalated tensions between the two countries and drew international concern.

The two neighbors have been locked in a tense tug-of-war since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the incident late Sunday, in which Russian coast guard ships fired on Ukrainian navy vessels near the Kerch Strait, directly pitted the two militaries against each other, placing them on the verge of an open conflict.

The Ukrainian navy said six of its seamen were wounded when Russian coast guards opened fire on three Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait and then seized them. Russia said that three Ukrainian sailors were lightly injured and given medical assistance.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, chaired an emergency meeting of his Cabinet early today and asked parliament to introduce martial law for two months in response to what he described as Russian aggression.

“We consider it as an act of aggression against our state and a very serious threat,” the president said. “Unfortunately, there are no ‘red lines’ for the Russian Federation.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told reporters later that Kiev believes that what happened near the Kerch Strait was no accident but “deliberately planned hostilities.”

If adopted by lawmakers, the emergency measures proposed by Poroshenko will include a partial mobilization and strengthening the country’s air defense. They also include a plethora of vaguely worded steps such as the “strengthening” of anti-terrorism measures and “information security.”

The fate of the Ukrainian seamen was not immediately clear. Klimkin insisted that they should be treated as prisoners of war while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not say what legal status they have.

An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was also called for today. The European Union and NATO called for restraint from both sides.

Poroshenko had a phone call today with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss the situation. NATO later said that at Poroshenko’s request, its ambassadors and Ukraine’s envoy will hold emergency talks in Brussels later today.

NATO said Stoltenberg expressed the U.S.-led military alliance’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law.”

Poroshenko said at a meeting of Ukraine’s national security council today that “we demand that (the ships and crews) are urgently turned over to the Ukrainian side” and called for a “de-escalation” of the crisis around Crimea.

Russia and Ukraine have traded blame over the incident that further escalated tensions that have soared since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons.

Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov in line with international maritime rules, while Russia charged that they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the Kerch Strait separating Crimea from the Russian mainland.

The narrow strait is the only passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It’s spanned by a 11.8-mile bridge that Russia completed this year. While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation of Crimea.