Russia warns Kiev and rejects western criticism over Black Sea clash

Much of Ukraine to impose martial law on Wednesday amid rising tension

A Ukrainian sailor (right) is escorted by a Russian intelligence agency FSB officer to a courtroom in Simferopol, Crimea on  Tuesday. Photograph: AP Photo

A Ukrainian sailor (right) is escorted by a Russian intelligence agency FSB officer to a courtroom in Simferopol, Crimea on Tuesday. Photograph: AP Photo

 

Russia has strongly defended its decision to shoot at and seize three Ukrainian naval ships in the Black Sea, dismissing western criticism and warning Kiev against “further reckless steps” that could inflame their conflict.

Ukraine will impose martial law in regions on the coast and bordering Russia on Wednesday, in response to the capture of the boats and 24 crewmen near Crimea on Sunday and what it calls the risk of a land assault by Moscow’s troops.

Kiev accuses Russia of flagrant aggression against its ships and those on-board, several of whom appeared in court in Crimea on Tuesday, while the Kremlin claims the Ukrainian boats did not follow normal procedures for entering the Kerch Strait, a link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov that the two countries share.

The EU, Nato and major western states have urged Russia to release the ships and prisoners, at least three of whom have injuries, but the Kremlin brushed off their concerns and calls for de-escalation and dialogue.

In a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian president Vladimir Putin denounced “the provocation and gross violation of international law by Ukraine’s warships” and warned that Kiev bears “full responsibility for creating yet another conflict situation and for the attendant risks”.

Mr Putin “expressed the hope that Berlin would use its influence on Kiev to stop it from taking further reckless steps”, the Kremlin said.

While the US state department condemned what it called Russia’s “aggressive” actions and “outrageous violation” of Ukraine’s territory, President Donald Trump characteristically declined to criticise the Kremlin.

His only comment on the matter was that “we do not like what’s happening either way . . . not good. Not happy about it at all”.

‘Provocation’

Mr Putin, who ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has not spoken publicly about the incident, but his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he would do so in the coming days.

“It would be wrong to underestimate the significance and danger of this kind of provocation,” Mr Peskov said on Tuesday.

In response to calls for calm from western capitals, Mr Peskov said: “The situation doesn’t really need calming down. The ‘calming down’ happened the day before yesterday, when our border guards calmed down those who violated the state border of the Russian Federation. ”

The Kremlin also criticised Kiev’s decision to impose 30 days of martial law, suggesting it was a ploy to help Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko win re-election next year, and warning that it could further de-stabilise the eastern Donbas region where government troops and Russian-led militia have been fighting since spring 2014.

“Introducing martial law in several regions could potentially carry the risk of escalating tension in the conflict area,” Mr Peskov said.

Hearings

A court in occupied Crimea on Tuesday ordered several of the captured Ukrainian sailors be held in pre-trial detention for two months; the rest of the crewmen are expected to face hearings on Wednesday.

They face charges of illegally crossing the Russian border, but the Ukrainian government wants them to be treated as prisoners of war.

Russian state television showed footage of three prisoners giving “confessions”, with at least one clearly reading lines from a prepared text.

Ten of Ukraine’s 27 regions are set to introduce martial law on Wednesday, to help the country counter what Mr Poroshenko called the “extremely serious threat of a land-based operation” by Russian forces.

He insisted the presidential election would take place as planned in March, and that the special measures would “allow us, in the event of invasion, to react and mobilise all resources as quickly as possible” while not imposing “restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens”.