Tensions rise after Russia detains 24 Ukrainian Sailors in the Kerch Strait

Construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Photo by Kremlin.

The Ukrainian Parliament has voted “yes” today on President Petro Poroshenko’s proposal for declaring martial law for 30 days after a confrontation on Sunday between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, BBC reports. 

Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels and detained 24 sailors in the strategically important waters of the Kerch Strait. Ukraine says two small gunboats, the Berdyansk and Nikopol, and a tugboat were seized, according to CNN. They were traveling from the port of Odessa, in the Black Sea to Maripol, in the Sea of Azov, when the vessels were attacked and seized. President Poroshenko called the Russian acts “unprovoked and crazy”.

The Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov released footage which appears to show the Russian vessel Don ramming the tugboat. It is unclear how the video was obtained. In the video, the cursing commander says, in Russian, “slam him from the right” and “squeeze him” before telling crew members to “hold on” before collision, according to CNN. Russian state media shared similar clips that do not show the moment of impact.

Avakov’s tweets says, “Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine has received access to the video of provocations-Taran of the Russian border ship “Don” of the Ukrainian ?? ship. The captured video is filmed by Russian, responsive teams-it will be proof in the International Court! Aggression! And look forward to the reactions of friendly countries!”

Prior to the confrontation, a Russian tanker blocked the passage through the strait and under the Crimean Bridge while fighter jets flew above. The Russian built bridge spans the narrow waters which is the only access to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine claims that Russia is attempting to occupy the Azov Sea and is damaging Ukraine’s economy, per the BBC. For months the US and Ukraine have accused Russia of interfering with shipping in the strait.

Recently, Russia began inspecting all ships that enter or leave Ukrainian ports. They say the measure is necessary because of the threat posed by Ukrainian radicals to the bridge.

CNN reports that the Russian state news agency TASS says the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) claims that the Ukrainian ships were illegally in Russian waters and were “carrying out dangerous maneuvers”. 

TASS reported the three Ukrainian vessels were detained by Russian forces and that “weapons were used to force them to stop.”

“They did not respond to legitimate demands by the ships and boats of Russia’s FSB Border Guard Service escorting them to stop immediately and performed dangerous maneuvers,”

Three Ukrainian servicemen were wounded and received medical care from the Russians, TASS said.

CNN

Ukraine states that Russia had illegally closed the strait to shipping and that it had given Russia advanced notice of its plan to move the ships through the strait. Russia denies that claim, according to BBC.

TASS reports that three of the detained sailors were injured and are hospitalized. The Ukrainian Navy states that six sailors were injured in the incident on Sunday morning.

After the confrontation Sunday morning, President Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of his security council and signed a decree asking parliament to introduce martial law. On Twitter, he stated, “The introduction of martial law in no way will not involve actions outside the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Martial law does not imply announcement of war. It is introduced exclusively for defense of Ukraine.”

This is the first time martial law has been declared in Ukraine since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Poroshenko asked for half of the 60 days the security council asked for, in light of the presidential elections coming up in March.

The declaration of martial law could give the Ukrainian government power to regulate the media, restrict public demonstrations and political activities, take control of private property, require all citizens physically capable to undertake tasks deemed “socially necessary” (such as working at defense facilities), and ban elections and referendums, according to the Kyiv Post.

Martial law will go into effect on November 28.

Protests have occurred at the Russian embassy in Kiev where flares were thrown and a car set on fire, as Ukrainians react angrily to the latest aggression by the Russians. More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea where Russian backed separatists have fought with Ukrainian forces since Crimea was annexed by Russia.

Per CNN, members of the UN Security Council, including UK, France, Poland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, issued a statement calling on Russia to restore freedom of passage through the Kerch Strait. The European Union foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, demanded the immediate release of the crew and vessels. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged NATO’s  “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity”.

A meeting between NATO and Ukrainian ambassadors is scheduled for later today in Brussels and, per BBC, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is scheduled.

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