A group of Russian Navy vessels on Sunday attacked and captured three Ukrainian boats and detained dozens of sailors.
Video footage clearly shows a Russian warship slamming into a Ukrainian tugboat, with the Russian captain shouting “squash them!”
The incident occurred in the Kerch Strait, a narrow passageway separating the Black Sea from the Sea of Avoz. The strait is also the closest point of access for Russia to Crimea, which has been under Russian control since 2014.
According to a treaty signed in 2003, Russia and Ukraine have equal access to the waterway.
Sunday’s incident was “extraordinary,” said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has accused Moscow of attacking his country’s ships and breaking international law. Ukraine claims it informed Russia about the presence of its ships and has accused Moscow of trying to block its access through the strait.
Moscow claims the Ukrainian ships entered Russian waters illegally, and has decided to detain the captured sailors for at least two months. Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the entire event was staged to boost Poroshenko’s chances in Ukraine’s March presidential election (Poroshenko’s approval rating is at 10%).
Poroshenko responded to the incident by implementing 30-day emergency measures in the regions of the country closest to Russia. “We will fight for our freedom, we will fight for our democracy, we will fight for our soil,” Poroshenko told NBC. “The Russians will pay a huge price if they attack us.”
At an emergency meeting called to discuss Russian aggression, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley referred to the incident as “yet another reckless Russian escalation.” Haley accused Russia of violating international law, demanded the release of the Ukrainian sailors, and promised the US would “stand with the people of Ukraine.”
According to Poroshenko, Sec. of State Mike Pompeo has promised “full military assistance” to Kiev.
As analysts have pointed out, the situation puts increasing pressure on President Donald Trump to hold Putin accountable for the maritime clash.
The two world leaders plan to meet face to face later this month at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, but Trump has already hinted at canceling the meeting: “Maybe I won’t even have the meeting,” said Trump. “I don’t like that aggression. I don’t want that aggression at all.”
In the meantime, Russia also appears to be building a military presence along its border with Ukraine.
“The country is under the threat of a full-scale war with the Russian Federation,” warned Poroshenko.
According to media reports, locals have spotted a missile system being transported along a highway in Crimea towards Kerch.
Earlier this week, Moscow confirmed it would be sending a new surface-to-air missile system to Crimea to join the three already positioned there.