The Latest: US envoy says Russian attack not justified
MOSCOW (AP) — The Latest on raised tensions between Russia and Ukraine (all times local):
The U.S. special envoy for Ukraine says Washington sees no reason to doubt information from Kiev that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules when they were fired on and seized by Russian border guards.
Kurt Volker told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the Ukrainian vessels were on their way back to Odessa “when the Russian vessels then pursued them and attacked them.”
He says “there’s no conceivable justification that we can think of for the use of force in this scenario.”
Ukrainian authorities have released what they say is the exact location where the ships were fired on, indicating they were in international waters.
Volker says he does not have an independent U.S. assessment, but that “the data the Ukrainians have provided is quite clear.”
The European Union is insisting that Russia restore freedom of passage in the disputed Kerch strait between Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula to guarantee eastern Ukraine a sea opening into the Black Sea and beyond.
EU Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said Wednesday that “international law obliges the Russian Federation ensures unhindered and free passage of all vessels through the Kerch Strait. Therefore we expect Russia to restore the freedom of passage.”
Russia has begun prosecuting the crew of Ukrainian navy vessels it captured over the weekend in a confrontation off Crimea, which the EU and Western allies still recognize as Ukrainian. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for Sunday’s clash in the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Dombrovskis called the Russian action “unacceptable, and we expect Russia to immediately release the vessels and the crew and ensure the needed medical assistance to the Ukrainian servicemen.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has laid the blame for a standoff with Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea on the Ukrainian president and his desire to get re-elected.
It is the first time that Putin has commented on the incident near Russia-occupied Crimea on Sunday that raised the specter of a full-blown conflict between the two neighbors.
Putin said in a televised speech on Wednesday that the incident was entirely provoked by the Ukrainian vessels, which refused to communicate with Russian border guards. Putin laid the blame on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, saying that he ordered the navy to provoke the standoff with the sole purpose of scoring political points and getting re-elected next year.
Putin also said the Ukrainian vessels violated the territorial waters off southern Russia — which is the internationally recognized border. This appears to run counter to the claims of the Ukrainian government, which said the ships were approaching from another direction and were firmly in international waters.
Estonia has summoned the Russian ambassador to Tallinn over Russia’s use of military power against Ukrainian sailors and vessels in the Kerch Strait.
The Estonian Foreign Ministry says Aleksandr Petrov was told that Russia must immediately return the three vessels and release the crew.
The ministry said Wednesday that under international law, Russia must ensure that vessels from any countries can pass through the strait unhindered.
Estonia, a former Soviet republic, has reacted sharply to the events near Crimea, with President Kersti Kaljulaid saying Tuesday the attack constitutes “war in Europe.”
After Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, fear that they and other former Soviet republics could be next.
Ukraine has released what it says is the exact location near Crimea where its vessels were fired on and seized by Russia over the weekend, showing that they were in international waters.
The statement by Ukrainian officials contradicts Russia’s argument that it was chasing the ships because they were violating its territorial waters. Russia considers Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, part of its country.
The Ukrainian ministry in charge of occupied territories on Wednesday published what it claimed were the exact coordinates of where the military vessels “Berdiansk”, “Nikopol”, and “Yany Kapu” were when they were attacked by Russia, putting them outside the 12-mile zone of territorial waters.
Russian border guards have captured the vessels and the crews. Officials say they will try the seamen for violating the Russian border and that they do not consider them prisoners of war.
A military official says Russia will boost the defense of the occupied Crimean peninsula with more anti-aircraft missiles.
The Interfax news agency on Wednesday quoted Col. Vadim Astafyev, the top Defense Ministry official in Russia’s south, as saying that Russia will add one S-400 anti-aircraft missile system to the three already deployed in the peninsula.
The announcement comes three days after Russian border guards fired on three Ukrainian vessels and seized them and their crews. The first overt military confrontation between the two neighboring countries has raised the specter of a major conflict.
Ukraine said its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia alleged they had failed to get permission to pass.