By Alyssa Tolentino
On Sunday, November 25, the Ukrainian navy announced that Russia’s coast guard opened fire on and seized three of Ukraine’s vessels. The sea clash wounded two crewmembers, further escalating tensions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Before 2014, Crimea had long been a semiautonomous region within Ukraine. It had its own Parliament, but the Ukrainian government-held veto power over its actions. Two days after voters in Crimea approved a referendum on separating from Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the predominantly ethnic Russian region, reports CNN. In response, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called it “a robbery on an international scale,” and one that Kiev will never accept.
According to the Russian president, the 22,000 troops in Crimea did not enter during the current crisis but were already there in accordance with a treaty allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain in Crimea, so long as movements of these forces were agreed upon with Kiev.
However, Putin spoke too soon. In 2014, masked gunmen stormed a Ukrainian military base near the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol, killing one victim. In response, the Defense Ministry of Ukraine authorized its forces in Crimea to use weapons “to protect and preserve the life of Ukrainian soldiers,” reports CNN.
Peter Poroshenko, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and future president, released a statement saying that his country stands at “the beginning of a very dangerous conflict, and we should do our best to stop this process.”
Today, in the Black Sea off Crimea’s coast, Russia and Ukraine find themselves in a tense standoff. ABC News reports, “Russian coast guard vessels… carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships.”
Russia claimed no responsibility, instead alleging that Ukraine provoked the incident based on “irrefutable evidence,” as stated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). FSB later confirmed that it did fire on the vessels, but only because they made an unauthorized passage through Russian territorial waters. In its media statement, FSB stated, “Their [Ukraine’s] goal is clear – to create a conflict situation in the region.”
A 2003 treaty designated the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters. Since 2015, however, Russia has asserted greater control over this water passage. Now, the clash has prompted Moscow into blocking passage through this narrow strait that separated the Crimean Peninsula from the Russian mainland. Russia has given no indication of how long it will lock the strait, but ABC News warns that a long-term closure could ultimately lead to an economic blockade of Ukrainian cities on the Azov coast.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has argued that Russia’s actions violated the UN Charter and international law, reports ABC News. Its statement reads, “such actions pose a threat to the security of all states in the Black Sea region and therefore require a clear response from the international community.” On Monday morning, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting. The European Union and NATO have called for restraint from both sides and for Moscow to restore access to the Kerch Strait.
Interestingly, Dmitry Kiselyov, a political commentator on Russian state-controlled TV, told viewers that Ukrainian President Poroshenko is picking a fight with Russia in the Black Sea to disrupt an upcoming meeting between Presidents Putin and Trump at this week’s Group of 20 Summit in Argentina. On Thursday, BBC News reported President Trump’s decision to cancel a planned meeting with Putin “based on the fact that the [Ukranian] ships and sailors have not been returned.”
President Poroshenko has urged NATO to send ships to the area. In addition, he has implemented martial law across Ukraine’s border regions for 30 days in response to the sea crisis. According to BBC News, Poroshenko announced that Russians living in Ukraine would soon face restrictions on bank withdrawals, changing foreign currency, and traveling abroad.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia felt repercussions in the form of suspension of its membership in the Intergovernmental Group of Eight. Now, the group’s international powers will pay close attention to developments resulting from the sea clash and the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.