The Ukrainian president has urged NATO to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov amid a standoff with Russia, a statement sharply criticized by the Kremlin as a provocation aimed at further inflaming tensions.
President Petro Poroshenko made the call in an interview with the German daily Bild published Thursday, saying that “Germany is one of our closest allies and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security.”
In Sunday’s confrontation, the Russian coast guard fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels and their crews that sought to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, between Russia’s mainland and the Crimean Peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she plans to press Russian President Vladimir Putin at this weekend’s G-20 summit in Argentina to urge the release of the ships and crews, but added that “we can only resolve this in talks with one another because there is no military solution to all of these conflicts.”
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There was no immediate reaction from NATO officials to Poroshenko’s request. While NATO condemned the Russian action, the allies will be unlikely to heed Poroshenko’s request, which could trigger a confrontation with Russia. A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine stipulates that agreement from each of the two littoral countries is required for warships from any other country to enter the internal sea.
Poroshenko responded by ordering martial law in much of the country, a move that went into effect with parliamentary approval. Putin accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking the naval incident in a bid to use martial law to shore up his sagging popularity and sideline competitors ahead of the March election.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Poroshenko’s request for NATO to send warships into the Sea of Azov is “clearly aimed at provoking further tensions,” adding that it was driven by the Ukrainian leader’s “electoral and domestic policy motives.”
Ukraine insisted that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia said they had failed to get permission to pass.
Ukraine has released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on by Russia, saying they were in international waters west of the Kerch Strait. Russia, meanwhile, insisted the Ukrainian vessels were in its territorial waters and refused to communicate with the Russian coast guard, or accept a Russian pilot to guide them through the narrow strait.
“What were the border guards supposed to do?” Putin said Wednesday. “They fulfilled their duty to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. If they had done something differently, they should have been put on trial for that.”
The showdown comes amid the long-simmering conflicts between the two countries, in which Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supported separatists in Ukraine’s east with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons. The fighting there has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 but eased somewhat after a 2015 truce.
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The naval incident marked the first overt collision between Russian and Ukrainian militaries since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It has fueled fears of a wider conflict and has drawn strong criticism of Russia from the U.S. and its allies.
In the interview with Bild, Poroshenko lobbied the West for direct military support.
“Russian President Putin wants nothing less but to occupy the sea,” he said. “The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world.”
Putin, for his part, criticized the West for what he described as connivance with Ukraine’s “provocation.”
“The authorities in Kyiv are successfully selling anti-Russian sentiments as they have nothing else left to sell,” he said. “They can get away with whatever they do. If they want to eat babies for breakfast today, they will likely serve them too.”
Amid the tensions, the Russian military said it had deployed another batch of the long-range, S-400 air defence missile systems to Crimea.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he discussed the possibility of a Turkish mediation to resolve tensions between Russia and Ukraine and held separate telephone conversations with Putin and Poroshenko on Thursday.
Asked about the Turkish offer, Peskov responded that “Moscow is grateful to all those willing to help de-escalate the tensions provoked by the Ukrainian side, but doesn’t see any need for mediation efforts.”
“Those who have such opportunities could help by exerting influence on the Ukrainian authorities,” Peskov said.