Russian president Vladimir Putin has rejected international calls to free 24 Ukrainian sailors and three ships, and warned that Ukraine’s war with Moscow-led militants will continue while Kiev’s current pro-western leaders are in power.
Mr Putin briefly spoke to US president Donald Trump about the issue at a summit of G20 states, while US defence secretary James Mattis called the Russian leader a “slow learner” whose actions were turning the world against Moscow.
Mr Putin again blamed Kiev for the November 25th naval clash in which Russia seized the Ukrainian ships and crew, and said there was no immediate prospect of them being released.
“It’s too early to talk about that. There is an investigation going on,” Mr Putin said at the G20 gathering in Argentina.
“We need to confirm the provocative nature of the actions of the Ukrainian authorities and establish it all in legal documents,” he added, claiming that logbooks from the captured ships and testimony from the crew would prove Kiev’s guilt.
“The current leadership of Ukraine is not interested in solving the situation in general, especially by peaceful means. It’s a party of war, and while they are in power, tragedies like this and war will continue.”
Moscow seized Crimea and fomented a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when the country sought rapid integration with the West following a revolution that ousted Kiev’s then Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovich. The fighting has killed more than 10,300 people and displaced 1.6 million.
Rising tension around the Sea of Azov – which Ukraine and Russia share – erupted last Sunday when Russian border guard vessels blocked three of Kiev’s ships from entering the area from the Black Sea.
A Russian boat rammed a Ukrainian tug and then, as the three Ukrainian ships set sail back towards Odessa, the Russian vessels fired on and captured them, lightly injuring three crewmen.
Act of aggression
Kiev calls the incident an act of aggression, while Moscow claims it was the result of a “provocation” to boost the dismal ratings of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko ahead of elections next March.
Ukraine imposed martial law last Wednesday in 10 border and maritime regions, to prepare for what Mr Poroshenko called the threat of “full-scale war” with Russia, which he claims is massing troops and armour near his country’s frontier.
Mr Putin said he had explained Russia’s position on the issue to Mr Trump during a brief conversation in Argentina, after the US leader cancelled their planned talks; the White House said the move was a response to the Sea of Azov crisis, but it also came amid new revelations about Mr Trump’s alleged business ties to Moscow.
In the US, Gen Mattis said Moscow had shown “brazen contempt” for a Ukraine-Russia treaty governing shared use of the Sea of Azov, and accused the Kremlin of again trying to “muck around” with a US vote during last month’s midterm elections.
“Mr Putin is clearly a slow learner. He is not recognising that what he is doing is actually creating the animosity against his people,” Gen Mattis said.
“He’s not acting in the best interests of the Russian people, and he is actually causing Nato to re-arm and to strengthen the democracies’ stance”.
After meeting Mr Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel said “escalations must be avoided” in Ukraine and insisted that “Russia must stick to” the 2003 treaty on the Sea of Azov, where Kiev says Moscow is now enforcing a de-facto blockade.
Mr Poroshenko urged Europe to “increase pressure” on Moscow and requested “a bigger naval presence from Germany and other allies in the Black Sea, to act as a restraining factor on Russia.”