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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Russia fires on Ukraine's navy near Crimea as tensions flare

Russia fired on Ukrainian warships and injured some of their crew members on Sunday, marking a dramatic renewal of tensions between the former Soviet neighbours near the peninsula of Crimea that Russia annexed four years ago.

Ukraine said Russian warships opened fire on a group of its military vessels in neutral waters that had previously tried to enter the Kerch Strait. Six men were wounded as Russia “fired to kill,” while three ships were captured, according to Ukraine’s Navy. Ukraine's parliament will hold an emergency session on Monday at 4pm in Kiev to discuss whether to impose martial law.

Russia said it used all necessary measures to stop Ukrainian vessels that had violated its waters and engaged in “dangerous manoeuvres.” It had earlier cut off access to the strait “for security reasons.”

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Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko contacted the European Union and Nato about possible additional sanctions over what he called “criminal acts.”

He stressed that martial law – a measure that was not even taken at the height of Ukraine’s hostilities with Russia – would not mean military mobilisation or war. The foreign ministry urged an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Sunday’s incident is one of the worst flare-ups since a 2015 truce to halt violence in the Russian-backed conflict in Ukraine’s easternmost regions and comes less than a week before a Group of 20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires. Tensions between the two neighbours have contributed to ties between Russia and the West plummeting to the worst since the Cold War.

Facing a re-election bid next year, Mr Poroshenko cannot afford to appear weak, even though his navy is far smaller than Russia’s. At the same time, Ukraine’s supporters in the west have little enthusiasm for a new escalation of the conflict that broke out after protesters ousted the country’s Kremlin-backed leader and demanded closer ties with the EU.

“We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately,” an EU spokesman said in a statement. Nato said separately that it is closely monitoring developments.

Russia’s construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait – the entrance to the Azov Sea – limited ship traffic to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, an important freight hub. Russia’s FSB said the three Ukrainian ships had been “detained” for violating the Russian border. It said the wounded sailors were treated and their injuries are not life threatening.

Commenting on Facebook, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the events a “provocation,” accusing Ukraine of setting it all up to accuse Russia of aggression. Ukraine says it warned Russia in advance of the passage of its vessels.

The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, said Russia was probably to blame for the flare-up. John Herbst, director of the council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said Russia “would like to raise the cost on the Ukrainian economy” and “entice Ukraine into taking some sort of military action to protect shipping to and from its ports.”