US backs Ukraine on two fronts

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD -

A US air force ob­ser­va­tion plane flew over Ukraine yes­ter­day in a mis­sion to show Amer­i­can sup­port for Kiev fol­low­ing Rus­sia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval ves­sels in the Sea of Azov last month.

The flight came as the US Navy pre­pared to send a war­ship into the Black Sea for the first time in four years, fol­low­ing the first open mil­i­tary in­ci­dent be­tween Kiev and Moscow since 2014 when Rus­sia an­nexed the Crimean penin­sula and a con­flict erupted in eastern Ukraine.

“To­day, the US and al­lies con­ducted an ex­tra­or­di­nary flight un­der the Open Skies Treaty. The tim­ing of this flight is in­tended to reaf­firm US com­mit­ment to Ukraine and other part­ner na­tions,” the Pen­tagon said.

The US Navy sent no­tice to Tur­key on Thurs­day that the ship from the 6th Fleet, which is based in Italy, would pass through the Bospho­rus. Un­der the 1936 Mon­treux Con­ven­tion, Tur­key can­not block the strait, which is an in­ter­na­tional ship­ping lane, but re­serves the right to be in­formed be­fore war­ships pass through.

Although NATO be­gan sea and air pa­trols in the Black Sea last year, in re­sponse to a re­quest from Ro­ma­nia for help to de­ter Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, this will be the first US de­ploy­ment since April 2014 in the af­ter­math of the Crimea an­nex­a­tion. The Pen­tagon’s de­ci­sion fol­lows re­peated calls from Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine for NATO to come to his coun­try’s aid.

The US Navy de­clined to con­firm whether its de­ploy­ment was linked to the cri­sis trig­gered when Rus­sia seized 24 sailors on the three Ukrainian ves­sels in the Azov, ac­cessed by the Kerch Strait be­tween Crimea and the Rus­sian main­land, on Novem­ber 25. The sailors have been put be­fore a court in Sim­fer­opol, the main city in Crimea, and or­dered to be held in pre-trial de­ten­tion for two months.

Com­man­der Kyle Raines, spokesman for the 6th Fleet, said that it was “al­ways pre­pared to re­spond when called”. “We rou­tinely con­duct oper­a­tions to ad­vance se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity through­out the US 6th Fleet area of oper­a­tions, in­clud­ing the in­ter­na­tional wa­ters and airspace of the Black Sea. We re­serve the right to op­er­ate freely in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional laws and norms.”

Rus­sian for­eign min­istry spokes­woman Maria Zakharova said on Wed­nes­day the Krem­lin had in­for­ma­tion that the US was plan­ning to build up its mil­i­tary pres­ence in Cyprus, and warned that such a move would re­sult in “dan­ger­ous and desta­bil­is­ing con­se­quences”.

In 2003 Moscow and Kiev signed a treaty that had the ef­fect of mak­ing the Azov shared ter­ri­tory. Rus­sia has been ha­rass­ing Ukrainian ships close to the area, how­ever. Wash­ing­ton called its seizure of the three ves­sels “a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion and a vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law”.

The Open Skies Treaty is aimed at pro­mot­ing mil­i­tary trans­parency through re­cip­ro­cal, un­armed ob­ser­va­tion flights over each of the 34 sig­na­tory coun­tries’ ter­rains. The Pen­tagon said the Ukrainian mil­i­tary had re­quested the flight, which was on an OC-135 sur­veil­lance plane and had ob­servers from the US, Canada, Ger­many, France, Bri­tain, Ro­ma­nia and Ukraine aboard. This was the first “ex­tra­or­di­nary” flight un­der the treaty since 2014.

“Rus­sia’s un­pro­voked at­tack on Ukrainian naval ves­sels in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait is a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion in a pat­tern of in­creas­ingly provoca­tive and threat­en­ing ac­tiv­ity,” the Pen­tagon said. “The US seeks a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia, but this can­not hap­pen while its un­law­ful and desta­bil­is­ing ac­tions con­tinue in Ukraine and else­where.”

AP

Ukrainian para­troop­ers board a Il-76 trans­port at Oz­erne air base bound for the front with Rus­sian-backed rebels in the east of the coun­try

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