Kremlin warns of possible flare-up of hostilities in Ukraine
MOSCOW — The Kremlin warned Tuesday that Ukraine’s declaration of martial law over Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships might trigger a flare-up in hostilities in eastern Ukraine, while Kiev blamed Russia for parading captured Ukrainian seamen on television.
The Ukrainian parliament on Monday adopted a motion by the president to impose martial law for 30 days after Sunday’s clash between the two rivals in the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. That is something Ukraine avoided doing even when Russia annexed its nearby Crimean peninsula in 2014 or sent in clandestine troops and weapons to insurgents in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
On Sunday near Crimea, Russian border guards rammed into and opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels traveling from the Black Sea toward a Ukrainian port. The Russians seized the ships and their crews. A court Tuesday in the Crimean capital of Simferopol ordered one of the Ukrainian seamen to be kept behind bars until Jan. 26.
The Kremlin reacted strongly to Ukraine’s declaration of martial law, with Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, telling reporters Tuesday that it might trigger a flare-up in hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, a conflict that has left over 10,000 dead, but fighting has eased since a truce in 2015.
The martial law takes effect Wednesday in several parts of Ukraine, including areas bordering territory now held by the separatists.
The Russian intelligence agency FSB claimed the ships had Ukrainian SBU intelligence agents onboard with a mission to mount what they called “provocation” in the Kerch Strait.
The SBU on Tuesday confirmed the presence of its officers on the ships but denied any nefarious intentions, saying they were simply fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy.
The SBU also demanded that Russia stop using “psychological and physical pressure” on the Ukrainians — an apparent reference to the interviews of the crewmembers that Russia released late Monday. The video broadcast by state television showed three separate interviews with Ukrainian seamen, all of whom agreed with Russian claims that they violated its border.
It was not immediately possible to ascertain if the men were talking under duress or had been subject to violence. One of them was clearly reading from a teleprompter.
Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the confrontation that raised the specter of renewing a full-blown conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov in line with international maritime rules, while Russia charged that they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the narrow Kerch Strait, which is spanned by a new bridge that Russia completed this year. The bridge is the only land border from the Russian mainland to the annexed peninsula of Crimea.
Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone early Tuesday, and the Russian president expressed a “serious concern” about what the martial law in Ukraine might entail.
Russia was heavily criticized Monday at the United Nations by the U.S and other western nations for seizing the Ukrainian ships.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday that Berlin has “called on Russia and Ukraine to show the greatest possible restraint” and suggested that Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine could work together to resolve the tensions.
Asked about previous offers of mediation between Ukraine and Russia, Peskov said Russia has no need for it because it views the standoff in the Black Sea as a simple case of a border violation.
The United States and the European Union have slapped sanctions on Russian businesses, tycoons and banks for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.