The Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, has been reopened after Russian vessels fired on Ukrainian boats yesterday.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) alleges two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat illegally entered Russian territorial waters on Sunday morning. Russian authorities deployed two fighter jets and two helicopters, fired on the Ukrainian vessels and blocked the Kerch Strait by placing a tanker under the Kerch bridge. The Ukrainian ships, which had been en route from Odessa on the coast of the Black Sea to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, were seized by Russia, which claimed traffic in the Kerch Strait had been suspended for security reasons.
The Ukrainian navy said that it had informed Russia of the boats’ planned route through the Kerch Strait; and that six crew members had been injured in the incident. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who has denied any wrongdoing on the part of the Ukrainian vessels, asked his parliament to declare martial law in the wake of the standoff, calling Russia’s actions “unprovoked and crazy.”
Ukraine’s military has been placed on full combat alert in anticipation of tensions escalating between the two countries. Around 150 people gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kiev on Sunday evening to protest Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait; some of the protesters threw flares and one embassy-owned car was set alight.
Alexei Volkov, director general of Crimean Maritime Ports, confirmed today that the Kerch Strait had been reopened early this morning. Ukraine and Russia have both requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov were declared to be shared territorial waters between Ukraine and Russia in a treaty signed in 2003. Russia built the Kerch bridge, which connects Crimea to mainland Russia, earlier this year despite substantial opposition from Ukraine; and shortly afterwards began imposing inspections on vessels passing through the Kerch Strait, citing security reasons.
A statement from the EU said: “[T]he events in the Sea of Azov are a demonstration of how instability and tensions are bound to rise when the basic rules of international cooperation are disregarded. The construction of the Kerch Bridge took place without Ukraine’s consent and constitutes another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has led, in parallel with the militarisation of the Azov Sea, to tougher controls on naval traffic in the strait. The European Union expects Russia to stop the inspections.”