FLASH POINT – Russia & Ukraine Come to Blows
Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels near Crimea is an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” says U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, calling it “another reckless Russian escalation” in a deadly and years-long conflict.
“In the name of international peace and security, Russia must immediately cease its unlawful conduct and respect the navigational rights and freedoms of all states,” Haley said, speaking at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council late Monday morning.
Haley said she was speaking for “the highest level at the American government,” after consulting with President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Haley spoke one day after Russian warships fired upon the the Ukrainian navy ships Berdyansk and Nikopol and the tug boat Yana Kapu — ramming at least one vessel and wounding several crew members on Sunday, Ukraine says.
The military confrontation ramped up already bitter tensions between the two countries, coming nearly five years after Russia forcibly annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian ships had been trying to pass through the Kerch Strait, a waterway with strategic significance that passes under a newly built Russian bridge. It connects the small (and otherwise landlocked) Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. Ukraine said the vessels were heading from the port of Odessa to Mariupol.
Russia accused Ukraine of illegally entering its waters. Ukraine says its vessels were operating in accordance with international maritime rules.
“All hell broke loose” on the water, said Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., saying the Ukrainian ships were set upon after being forced to wait for secure passage through the strait. He said he has audio recordings of radio traffic showing how the Russian military orchestrated the episode.
Holding up a copy of the 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine, Yelchenko said Russia was guilty of “an open act of military aggression” that broke a number of international and bilateral agreements.
Yelchenko added that Ukraine now believes there is a heightened risk that Russia plans to invade and seize more of its territory — namely, the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk — as it seeks to cement control of the waters around Crimea.
Russia opened fire, before its special forces stormed the vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.
Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was proposing that parliament back a 30-day martial law – half the length of that recommended by Ukraine’s security and defence council.
He said he did not want the measure to affect presidential elections set for 31 March 2019.
Sunday’s clash is the first time Russia and Ukraine have come into open conflict in recent years, although Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists and Russia volunteers in the east since 2014.
Russia said the Ukrainian ships were in its waters illegally because Moscow had temporarily closed an area of water for shipping.
Kiev called Russia’s actions a flagrant violation of international law, because the Black Sea is free for shipping, and Crimea belongs to Ukraine.
Ukraine also cited a 2003 Russia-Ukraine treaty on unimpeded access to the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.
It said it had informed the Russians in advance of its plan to move its ships to Mariupol – a claim denied by Russia.
In recent weeks, two Ukrainian vessels passed through the Kerch Straight without incident.
Martial law could give the government the power to restrict public demonstrations, regulate the media, suspend elections, and oblige citizens to carry out “socially necessary” tasks such as working at a defence facility, local media report.
Ukraine’s parliament is discussing how to proceed with the issue. A vote is expected later on Monday.
If backed by MPs, martial law would enter into force at 07:00 GMT on 28 November.
But some politicians are expressing concern it could still lead to the presidential elections being cancelled.
Some say President Poroshenko could be a main beneficiary, as his ratings have plummeted.
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