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20 Dec, 2018 10:42

Ukraine plans another incursion into Kerch Strait, hopes NATO ships will join in – top official

Ukraine plans another incursion into Kerch Strait, hopes NATO ships will join in – top official

Kiev is considering sending its Navy ships through the Kerch Strait again, a high-ranked official said weeks after a tense standoff between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the area.

Another passage by Ukrainian Navy ships through the Kerch Strait which connects Black and Azov Seas might take place very soon, according to Alexander Turchinov, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “I think that this issue cannot be delayed,” he told BBC News Ukraine on Wednesday. 

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Turchinov, who briefly served as interim president after the Western-backed 2014 Euromaidan coup in Kiev, didn’t mince his words while explaining the rationale between the action. To him, Russia is after “seizing the Azov Sea,” install new maritime borders and “legitimize the occupation of Crimea.”

The only antidote to the plan is “to show to the entire world that Ukraine has not lost its position in the Azov Sea.” Turchinov was speaking several weeks after three Ukrainian ships attempted to break through the strait which Russia had closed on safety reasons.

On November 25, three Ukrainian Navy vessels, including two combat-ready gunboats, entered the Kerch Strait without getting proper clearance first, according to Moscow. After ignoring multiple warnings and demands to stop, they were fired upon and seized by the Russian coast guard, while the sailors were taken to custody.

This time, the official said he hopes Ukraine will not be left alone in the next endeavor. “It would be very logical if NATO ships which we invited [to visit] the Azov Sea ports make sure that Russia complies with international law,” he said, lamenting the military bloc provided no response yet.

Nevertheless, Turchinov hopes that “during the next passage of Ukrainian warships through the Kerch Strait they will at least send their observers to us.” Kiev had also invited officials from OSCE and other international bodies to be on board Ukrainian ships to prove “that Ukraine and its sailors do not violate any laws and international rules.”

The latter phrase sounds odd given that Moscow had accused Ukrainian sailors of deliberately violating Russia’s maritime borders in the Kerch Strait and breaking specific rules of passing through the narrow, complex water area. Top Russian officials maintained that this was a premeditated and provocative act plotted by the Ukrainian government.

Turchinov’s BBC interview was predictably met with little praise in Moscow. “This was just an announcement of another provocation,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday, calling it “utterly irresponsible.” She noted the inflammatory remark came at the time when “many Ukraine’s partners try to defuse tensions in this situation and seek ways of de-escalation.”

It also comes several days after the UN General Assembly passed a Ukrainian resolution, condemning the presence of the Russian military in the Crimean Peninsula and the surrounding waters of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. 66 countries supported the non-binding resolution but 72 abstained from voting altogether.