Ukraine demanded the release of its sailors and more sanctions against Moscow on Monday after the Russian navy fired on and seized three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea.
In a sharp escalation of tensions between the ex-Soviet neighbours, Russia boarded and seized the three ships on Sunday, accusing them of illegally entering Russian waters in the Sea of Azov.
The confrontation at sea has raised fears of a wider military escalation and the UN Security Council was to hold an emergency session later Monday to consider a response.
Ukraine’s military was on high alert and parliament was to vote Monday on a request from President Petro Poroshenko to impose martial law for 60 days.
“We have irrefutable evidence that today’s aggression against Ukrainian Navy boats was not an error or coincidence. It was an aimed action, including opening fire on Ukrainian naval personnel,” Poroshenko said at the meeting with top government and military officials.
In a statement early Monday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry denounced “another act of armed aggression” by Russia.
It demanded “the return of the captured navy ships” and urged its Western allies “to take all necessary measures to deter the aggressor… by applying new and strengthening existing sanctions.”
The crisis unfolded as two small Ukrainian warships and a tugboat were heading through the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that gives access to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea and which is used by both Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine said a Russian border guard vessel rammed the tugboat and then fired on the ships, immobilising all three. It said the Kerch Strait was blocked by a tanker and that Russian military aircraft were flying over the area.
– Tensions over sea access –
Russia’s FSB security service, which oversees border forces, confirmed weapons had been fired and the vessels seized, accusing the Ukrainian ships of “violating the Russian border”.
Ukraine said six of its servicemen were injured, two seriously. The FSB said only three had suffered non-life threatening injuries and were given medical treatment.
The confrontation is a dangerous development in the long-running conflict pitting Ukraine against Moscow and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.
Tensions have been building over the Kerch Strait, where Russia has built a new bridge that gives it a land connection to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kiev has accused Moscow of blocking access for Ukrainian ships though the strait, the only way in and out of the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.
In recent months both sides had deployed more naval and border vessels to the area.
Kiev and the West have accused Moscow of deliberately blocking ships from accessing the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, which has vital access to heavy industry in the eastern part of the country.
Mariupol is close to the region controlled by Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that has caused at least 10,000 deaths since 2014.
The European Union and NATO on Sunday urged restraint, with the Western military alliance calling on Russia “to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law”.
– ‘Significant escalation’ –
“The incident marks a significant escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” research firm Eurasia Group said.
“Western governments will side with Ukraine against Russia over the incident… making new sanctions against Russia likely.”
The United States and Europe have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.
Poroshenko held a late-night meeting of his military cabinet, proposing the imposition of martial law in Ukraine “to ensure the security and safety of its citizens”.
It was not immediately clear what measures could be imposed, but the general staff said in a statement that the military was already at “full combat readiness”.
Eurasia Group said martial law could have wide-ranging domestic consequences, especially with a presidential election due in March and Poroshenko behind in opinion polls.
“Poroshenko did not take this kind of action during the worst of the conflict in 2014 and 2015. This raises concerns that… it could lead to postponement of the presidential election,” it said.
A few dozen protesters rallied outside the Russian embassy in Kiev late on Sunday, setting off flares and laying down paper boats in the snow as Ukrainian police looked on.
Kiev police said a car with diplomatic plates had also been set on fire but could not immediately confirm reports that it belonged to a Russian diplomat.