Russia said it would press charges against 24 captured Ukrainian sailors it claims illegally crossed its maritime border on Sunday.
Ukraine’s parliament declared martial law yesterday after Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait near Crimea on Sunday. Reports suggest the seamen will appear in a court in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hoping she could rein in Kiev and persuade it to overturn a decision to put its armed forces on alert.
He said he hoped “Berlin could influence the Ukrainian authorities to dissuade them from further reckless acts,” according to a statement issued by the Kremlin following the phone call.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen yesterday urged Russia to release the sailors and said both parties needed to show they were trying to calm the situation.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko initially demanded the introduction of martial law for two months after the incident. But the newly approved legislation cut this to 30 days in 10 of Ukraine’s regions on its border with Russia.
Many members of Mr Poroshenko’s political establishment opposed the move, fearing it could restrict civil liberties and prolong the president’s term. Legislators also voted to set the country’s presidential election for March 31 next year to quell fears that he would use martial law to hold on to power.
The Ukrainian military is fighting two pro-Russian separatist movements in eastern Ukraine that are clearly backed by Moscow, even though the Kremlin denies it. More than 10,000 people have lost their lives in the fighting.
The situation could grow into an even bigger confrontation if Russia decides to send warships and fighter jets to keep Ukrainian vessels out of the Sea of Azov, which is of strategic importance.
Crimea’s annexation gave Russia access to new ports and waterways, but Ukraine relies on the waters around Crimea for more than 80 per cent of its exports.
Mr Poroshenko received words of support from western leaders, including Mrs Merkel.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to release the sailors and expressed “full support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty”.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting yesterday to discuss the escalation.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tore into Russia’s “outlaw actions” and called for the release of the Ukrainian ships and their crews.
The Ukrainian ambassador, Volodymyr Yelchenko, insisted the Russian naval authorities had been notified about the passage of the vessels and had been waiting to hear confirmation on Sunday morning when the ships were attacked.
Russian ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy claimed the Ukrainian vessels had unlawfully entered Russian territorial waters, disregarding a notification that the Kerch Strait was closed.