Ukraine's President asks NATO members to send ships to the Sea of Azov

Dangerous play with fire confronts Kiev and Moscow

Photo: EPA President Petro Poroshenko visits a training centre of the Ukrainian Army ground forces near Chernihiv, 28 November.

In an interview with the German tabloid Bild, published on Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on NATO countries, including Germany, to send ships to the Sea of Azov. Earlier in the week he warned of the threat of “full-scale war” and said Russia had sharply increased its military presence on their shared border.

The number of Russian units deployed along the Ukraine-Russian border has “grown dramatically” while the number of Russian tanks has tripled, Poroshenko said, citing intelligence reports but giving no precise timescale for the buildup. Ukrainian parliament backed on Monday his motion to impose martial law in border areas for 30 days.

The naval incident, which occurred last weekend in the Kerch Strait when Russian border guards opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels before seizing the ships and their crews, raised fears that it would further aggravate the long-running conflict between Ukraine and Russia. It started with illegal annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014 and since then has provoked the death of 10,000 people. The Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, separates Russia from Crimea.

Ukraine insisted that two of its small gunboats and one tugboat were attacked by Russian naval forces on 25 November after entering the Kerch Strait en route to the city of Mariupol. Video of the incident released by Ukrainian officials appeared to show a Russian ship ramming the Ukrainian tugboat. Kiev has demanded the release of the sailors and urged Western allies to impose further sanctions on Moscow.

Contrary, Russia said the three Ukrainian vessels illegally crossed into Russian waters. Moscow blamed Kiev for planning the last Sunday's confrontation as a provocation aimed at drumming up support for Poroshenko ahead of presidential elections next March and convincing Western governments to impose further sanctions on Russia. In his first public comments on the incident on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Russia's accusation that the Ukrainian boats trespassed in Russian waters. He also claimed that the confrontation was orchestrated by the Ukrainian president. Poroshenko was unlikely to win a second term, Putin said, and was trying to gain advantage over his competitors.

The escalation between Russia and Ukraine prompted emergency talks by the UN Security Council, NATO and the OSCE, which monitors the deadly conflict near Ukraine's border with Russia. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Ukrainian president assured him that the martial law introduced in the country would not have a negative impact on next year's presidential election and would not hinder the working of the democratic institutions in Ukraine.

The EU on Wednesday called Russia's use of force “unacceptable” but made no mention of possible sanctions against Moscow.

A court in Simferopol, the main city in Russian-annexed Crimea, ordered all 24 captured Ukrainian sailors to be held in pre-trial detention for two months pending trial on a charge of illegally crossing Russia's maritime border.



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