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How Russia captured three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea

Meduza
FSB Press Service / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On November 25, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait area. Kyiv says at least of its six sailors were injured in the gunfire. The seized ships were brought to Kerch, where the wounded men received medical attention. The FSB says the ships violated Russia’s international border.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has demanded the immediate return of the country’s sailors and ships, calling the FSB’s actions a violation of international law. On November 26, Ukraine’s Security Service opened a criminal investigation, formally accusing Russia of “waging an aggressive war.” (Anyone in Ukraine convicted of assisting in this effort faces up to 15 years in prison.)

In response to the Kerch Strait incident, Poroshenko wants to impose martial law in Ukraine for the next 30 days. The parliament will vote on the proposal on Monday. The country’s military has already been placed on full alert, and the initiative has the support of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. Poroshenko promises that martial law would not mean Ukraine’s immediate mobilization for war or the restriction of civil rights.

Update: On November 26, hours before the Verkhovna Rada's vote, Poroshenko signed an executive order imposing martial law in Ukraine for 30 days, simultaneously submitting a bill to the parliament for approval. The document published by Poroshenko's office allows him to strengthen the country's air defense around strategic government facilities, increase security at the Russian border, and organize a census of reservists, in the event of a partial mobilization. Ukraine's parliament later voted the martial law initiative into law, which will take effect on November 28 and last 30 days, effective only in regions bordering Russian troops and the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (more commonly known as Transnistria), in other words, in 10 of Ukraine's 27 regions. The final agreement will not postpone Ukraine's March 2019 presidential election.

As tensions flare around Crimea, fighting has also intensified in separatist-controlled Donetsk. According to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, the Ukrainian military started shelling residential areas of the self-proclaimed DNR, as Ukrainian vessels challenged Russia at the Kerch Strait. Kyiv, on the other hand, says “occupiers [in Donetsk] fired on our positions 16 times,” wounding two soldiers.

In a statement published on November 26, Russia’s Foreign Ministry called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss Ukraine’s “flagrant violation” of the rules of innocent passage in Russia’s territorial sea. Sunday’s conflict, Moscow says, was “thoroughly planned and orchestrated” to distract Ukrainians from domestic problems ahead of their March 2019 presidential election. The Foreign Ministry also said it warned Ukraine and “its Western sponsors” many times about “the dangers of artificially inflated hysteria” in the Azov Sea and at the Kerch Strait.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed this sentiment on Monday, calling the naval conflict a “very dangerous provocation” and “an invasion of foreign military ships into Russia's territorial waters.”

Wait, what the heck happened? According to Russia, the FSB tracked three Ukrainian naval vessels inbound for the Kerch Strait on the morning of November 25. The ships apparently had not requested access to the area. Russia then used bulk freighters to block the straight and closed the waterway to civilian traffic. A Russian Coast Guard ship then rammed a Ukrainian tugboat that was following the three naval vessels. (Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov later tweeted a video filmed from the Russian ship, the “Don,” that rammed the tugboat.) Russia also deployed military helicopters to patrol the area. The FSB later fired on and seized three ships: the “Berdiansk” and “Nikopol” gunboats and the “Yani Kapu” tugboat. Kyiv says six of its sailors were injured, and Russia captured more than 20 men in all.