Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors, a move that risks igniting a dangerous new crisis between the two countries.
Russia’s FSB security service said early on Monday its border patrol boats captured 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 – illegally entered its territorial waters, attempted illegal actions, and ignored warnings to stop while manoeuvring dangerously.
“Weapons were used with the aim of forcibly stopping the Ukrainian warships,” the FSB said in a statement.
“As a result, all three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized in the Russian Federation’s territorial waters in the Black Sea.”
President Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian leader, met high-ranking military aides early on Monday after the incident. Poroshenko said he would propose that parliament impose martial law.
The United Nations Security Council is due to discuss the developments at the request of Russia, said Deputy Russian UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy.
According to the Ukrainian navy, six sailors were wounded when a Russian ship fired on Ukraine’s vessels near the Kerch Strait, a narrow sea passage close to the Crimean peninsula that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
“Small armoured vessels, the Beryansk and the Nicopol have been damaged by enemy fire and can’t move,” the navy said in a Facebook post.
The incident followed a naval standoff that escalated on Sunday when Moscow placed a large cargo ship beneath the 19km-long Crimean Bridge, which connects the Russian-annexed peninsula with its mainland, blocking all traffic into the strait, the only passage into the Sea of Azov.
Both countries have the right to use the sea, but following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 Moscow controls both sides of the strait.
While trying to stop the ships, a Russian navy ship rammed the Ukrainian tugboat.
“What’s happening now is an absolutely new level of aggression,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin was quoted by Ukrainian media as saying. “Russia’s actions are [about] a real intention to seize the Sea of Azov.”
Pro-Russian authorities in annexed Crimea accused the United States of being behind the escalation.
“Our American partners who rule Ukraine are behind all this. I am absolutely sure that everything is done following their commands. What’s important for them is to get Russia involved in another confict,” Vladimir Konstantinov, head of Crimea’s parliament, told Russia media.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from the Russian capital, Moscow, said Sunday’s events appeared to be “a series of escalations that seem to have culminated in extended fire”.
“This is something that seems to be getting very volatile.”
|Sea traffic was no longer allowed to pass through the Kerch Strait [VesselFinder.com screenshot]
The Kerch Strait is an important trade route for Ukraine as it gives ships access to the city of Mariupol, a key port located in the Sea of Azov.
Several dozen ships were anchored near the strait as they waited for the standoff to be solved, marine traffic tracker website VesselFinder.com showed on Sunday.
Videos and photos posted on Twitter purportedly showed Russian fighter jets and helicopters flying near the Crimean Bridge.
In a statement late on Sunday, NATO said it was closely monitoring developments and called for restraint and de-escalation.
“NATO fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, including its navigational rights in its territorial waters. We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law.”
Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European Union, said in a statement: “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.
“As clearly stated by the High Representative at the European Parliament recently, the events in the Sea of Azov are a demonstration of how instability and tensions are bound to rise when the basic rules of international cooperation are disregarded,” the statement added.
The rising volatility near the Kerch Strait is the latest in an ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine following the developments in Crimea four years ago.
The annexation followed the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich after weeks of protests that descended into a violent conflict.
Later, pro-Russian separatists took over parts of Donbass in southeastern Ukraine.
Since then, fighting in that region has killed more than 13,000 people, including about 3,000 civilians.