Russia fires on, rams Ukrainian vessels
Moscow blames Kyiv for provoking incident in the Black Sea near annexed Crimea
MOSCOW — Russia’s coast guard opened fire on and seized three Ukraine vessels Sunday, wounding two crew members, after a tense standoff in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian navy said.
Russia blamed Ukraine for provoking the incident, which sharply escalated tensions that have been growing since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has worked steadily to bolster its zone of control around the peninsula.
Earlier in the day, Russia and Ukraine traded accusations over a separate incident involving the same vessels, prompting Moscow to block passage through the narrow Kerch Strait, which separates the peninsula from the Russian mainland.
The Ukrainian navy said two of its gunboats were struck and Russian crews boarded and seized them and an accompanying tugboat.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB and which oversees the coast guard, said there was “irrefutable evidence that Kyiv prepared and orchestrated provocations … in the Black Sea. These materials will soon be made public.”
The FSB confirmed early Monday that it fired on the vessels to force them to stop, and then seized them.
The European Union and NATO called for restraint from both sides and for Moscow to restore access to the strait, which Ukraine uses to move ships to and from ports on either side of the peninsula.
Ukrainian authorities said they had given advance notice to the Russians that the vessels would be moving through the strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
Russia said the three Ukrainian vessels made an unauthorized passage through Russian territorial waters, while Ukraine alleged that one of its boats was rammed by a Russian coast guard vessel.
The tugboat that was rammed was travelling with the two Ukrainian gunboats from Odesa on the Black Sea to Mariupol, an eastern Ukraine port, via the Kerch Strait.
The Kerch Strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The strait is spanned by the recently completed Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to Russia. Transit under the bridge has been blocked by a tanker ship, and dozens of cargo ships awaiting passage are stuck.
Russia has not given any indication of how long it will block the strait, but a longterm closure would amount to an economic blockade of Ukrainian cities on the Azov coast. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet greatly outmatches the Ukrainian navy.
The FSB told Russian news agencies after the first incident that the Ukrainian ships held their course and violated Russian territorial waters.
Ukraine’s National Security Council said it was meeting over the incident.