The Nikopol gunboat (left) and the Yany Kapu tugboat of the Ukrainian navy are tugged to the Kerch Seaport.
Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images
Russian warships seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on Sunday in a narrow waterway that provides access from the Black Sea to the much smaller Sea of Azov near Crimea, ramping up already bitter tensions between the two countries.
On Sunday, Russia dispatched warplanes to patrol the area after the Ukrainian navy tried to send the ships through the Kerch Strait, a waterway with strategic significance for both countries that passes under a newly built Russian bridge.
In May, President Vladimir Putin personally opened the bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting the Crimea peninsula — which Moscow seized in 2014 — to Russia’s mainland.
The 12-mile-long span has been touted by Russia as a claim to Crimea. Ukraine, along with nearly every other country in the world, refuses to recognize that claim.
Russian vessels rammed one of the Ukrainian boats and opened fire on the other two before seizing all three, along with their crews. Ukrainian officials have said six of its sailors were injured; Russia has said three. The boats were towed to a nearby port.
Video from a Russian ship, including strong language from the bridge crew, shows it ramming a Ukrainian tug boat — one of the three vessels that was reportedly seized.
In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a late-night meeting with top security officials in the capital city of Kiev.
Poroshenko described the incident as open Russian aggression and said he planned to ask parliament to approve the imposition of martial law. Doing so would restrict Ukrainians’ civil liberties and increase state power and give the unpopular president a free hand to postpone elections in March, where he faces an uphill battle to hold onto power.
Russian state media said Poroshenko provoked the maritime incident as a means of delaying the election — and potentially to raise the stakes between President Trump and Putin, who are due to meet later this week.
Trump has not commented on the incident.
Russia accused Ukraine of illegally entering its waters. A spokesman for the FSB, the country’s Federal Security Service — which oversees the coast guard — said the Ukrainian vessels violated territorial waters and had to be stopped.
As Reuters reports:
“The FSB said it had been forced to act because the ships — two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat — had illegally entered its territorial waters, attempted illegal actions, and ignored warnings to stop while maneuvering dangerously.”
“This is a very dangerous provocation, which requires particular attention and a special investigation,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media.
The FSB will release evidence proving “Kiev’s plans to carry out a provocation in the Black Sea,” state media said.
Ukraine says its vessels were in operating in accordance with international maritime rules.
The incident sparked an international response and concern mainly for Ukraine over its more powerful nemesis.
The European Union issued a statement “urging all sides to act with utmost restraint.” NATO called for “restraint and deescalation.”
“NATO fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial waters,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement. “We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian posts in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law.”
The United Nations Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting on the incident Monday.
Russia blocked off the strait before the incident and reopened it to commercial shipping early Monday.
Relations between the countries have gone steadily downhill since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula. Ukraine continues to wage a low-level war against a pro-Moscow separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country.
The Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters, according to a 2003 treaty. Russia has focused on exerting more control over the waterway since the annexation — with the Kerch bridge being a key move.
The Russian embassy is seen covered in smoke during a protest of activists, following an incident in the Black Sea near the Crimea annexed by Russia, in which three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized by a Russian border guard vessels.
/Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ukranians reacted to the maritime standoff with anger. About 150 reportedly gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kiev, where a car with Russian diplomatic plates was set on fire.
“We gathered here today to protest against Russians over their actions today, over shooting of our military,” protester Oleksiy Ryabov told Reuters. “We are very angry. We should have severed all diplomatic relations with this country a long time ago.”
Far-right protesters reportedly burned tires outside the Russian consulate inthe western Ukrainian city of Lviv, saying Poroshenko is not aggressive enough in his relationship with Russia.
NPR’s Lucian Kim contributed to this report.