The President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has asked NATO to send help in the form of ships to the Sea of Azov, following a naval confrontation with Russia near Crimea. He hopes that the ships could be relocated “to assist Ukraine and provide security”.
Russia fired upon Ukrainian ships and seized their crews in the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Uzov. Nato have said that Ukraine has their “full support”, despite it not being a member state.
Who controls the water?
Russia claims that the Ukrainian ships were in Russian territorial waters, which extends 12 nautical miles from a country’s coastline. However, Ukraine considers Crimea its own, and is therefore saying that those waters off the coast of Crimea, are part of Ukrainian territorial waters.
Regardless of the status of Crimea, a 2003 treaty has an agreement between Russia and Ukraine that the latter argues gives them “freedom of navigation” in the Sea of Azov as well as access to it through the Kerch Strait.
The UN Convention the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that all ships, including foreign warships, enjoy the right of “innocent passage” within another state’s territorial sea under international law.
However, Russia dispute that the passage of the seized ships was innocent. The UN law states that a passage is innocent “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state”. That includes threat or use of force, exercise or practice with weapons or any act of propaganda affecting the security of the state.
Russia would need to prove that the passage of the Ukrainian vessels was not innocent and that Ukraine had showed “some form of hostile intent”. According to the Russian FSB’s account, Ukrainian vessels entered “combat readiness” in contravention of the innocent passage rules.
Ukraine has initiated martial law in it’s border regions giving the military and police more power, and reducing the rights of certain citizens whilst the conflict is being resolved.
What do Ukraine say?
President Poroshenko has claimed that Vladimir Putin wants “nothing less than to occupy the [Azov] sea”. In his plea to NATO, the President said that he hopes that “states within NATO” will provide assistance to Ukraine and “provide security”.
“We cannot accept this aggressive policy of Russia. First it was Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now he [Putin] wants the Sea of Azov. Germany, too, has to ask itself: What will Putin do next if we do not stop him?”President Petro Poroshenko
Ukraine have previously claimed that Russia has violated international law because they say that Ukrainian vessels have free access to the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait under the 2003 treaty with Russia that effectively makes these waters shared territory.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin told Ukrainian news channel 112 Ukrayina TV that “the Russian Federation has confirmed that bilateral agreements on the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are null and void. We understand that Russia has never had any intention to follow them.”
Ukraine also maintained that Russia deliberately rammed one of its boats in an “act of armed aggression”.
Mr Klimkin also said that Russia’s actions constituted a violation of “the freedom of maritime traffic” and of Articles 38 and 44 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which “clearly and strongly bans the obstruction of peaceful transit across the Kerch Strait”.
What do Russia say?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Ukraine are provoking them, and has claimed that the captured Ukrainian vessels had been organised by President Poroshenko in order to strengthen his bid in the March 2019 elections.
Poroshenko currently has low approval ratings with recent polls saying only 10% of the electorate plan to vote for him next year, and nearly 50% saying they would never vote for him under any circumstances.
Putin also questioned Ukraine’s use of martial law, claiming that it hadn’t been implemented in the height of the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Putin called the issue a “border incident”, trying to downplay the events.
Putin also insists that Russia’s military response was appropriate as the Ukrainians had “trespassed” into Russia’s territorial waters. However, Ukraine published a map on Wednesday that put all three Ukrainian vessels outside of the Crimea’s waters.
What does everyone else think?
A lot of countries have come out in support of Ukraine, and have condemned Russia’s actions. The UK’s ambassador to the UN spoke about his ‘concern’ at Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian vessels, and has called for the “immediate release” of six injured and 23 other Ukrainians who are being detained.
“This further demonstrates Russia’s ongoing contempt for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and its contempt for the global rules-based international system which this organisation serves to uphold. It follows on from Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its construction of Kerch Bridge in May this year which constitutes a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Ambassador Jonathan Allen
“Yesterday’s action follows months of Russian harassment of international shipping in the Sea of Azov, presumably aimed at destabilising the Ukrainian economy. Russia’s actions are not in conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2003 Russia-Ukraine Bilateral Agreement which provides for freedom of passage for each state’s vessels in the Sea of Azov including military ships. Russia’s actions must stop immediately. International shipping must be allowed free passage in the Sea of Azov. All parties must exercise restraint.”
The EU have also supported this position after releasing a press statement after the Russian seizure. They say they are “dismayed at this use of force” and called it “unacceptable” against the every increasing militarization in the area.
In response to Ukraine’s call for NATO help, German chancellor Angela Merkel has said only a “sensible dialogue” will solve the issue, in an attempt to avoid military action. However, she did say it was “entirely the doing” of Russian President Putin, and has promised to raise the issue with him directly.
Edit – This article was updated at 16:31 on 29th November 2018 to include details of other countries and the EU response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.