It appears that the long-simmering conflict in Ukraine is about to heat up as Russian security forces opened fire on Ukrainian warships in the Azov Sea off the coast of Crimea.
The Russian government is accusing Ukraine of a deliberate provocation, while Ukraine says it was “an act of aggression.”
Three sailors have been wounded after the Ukrainian navy said two artillery boats were hit by the strikes in the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko called an emergency session of his war cabinet and said he will propose that parliament declare martial law.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it used weapons after the Ukrainian ships ignored demands to stop and that it impounded three vessels which had illegally crossed the border.
The three injured sailors are receiving medical treatment and their lives are not in danger, the FSB said.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK said Russian special forces had captured two armoured artillery boats and a tugboat in an “act of aggression”.
The incident took place near the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that separates Russia and Crimea. Russia illegally claims the waterway as its own, denying Ukraine access to its Azov ports from the Black Sea.
Russia – which claims the waters off Crimea after annexing the peninsula in 2014 – accused Ukraine of illegally entering the area and deliberately provoking a conflict.
It placed a huge cargo ship beneath the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait Bridge to block Ukrainian boats from access to the sea.
“Their goal is clear – to create a conflict situation in the region,” the FSB said in a statement.
Or maybe their ships just want to go to their own ports. At any rate, the Russians had no business firing on them, much less stopping them.
The Ukrainian navy insisted Russia had been informed in advance about the planned journey.
“Russian coastguard vessels… carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships,” it said.
The European Union called on Russia and Ukraine to “act with utmost restraint to de-escalate” the situation in the Black Sea.
It urged Russia to “restore freedom of passage” through the Kerch Strait after Moscow blockaded it.
With the military situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine fairly quiet, Vladimir Putin may be looking to ramp up pressure on the Ukrainian government. His desire to annex more Ukrainian territory has not lessened since the Minsk Accords of 2015 and violence breaks out sporadically. Russia is still fomenting rebellion in some breakaway provinces and Russian troops — despite denials by the government — are still in Ukraine.
Putin is playing the long game in Ukraine and upping the pressure on their government by provoking conflict in the Azov Sea may be part of it.