Ukraine’s president has urged Nato to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov amid a stand-off with Russia.
Petro Poroshenko made the call in an interview with the German daily Bild, saying: “We hope that states within Nato are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security.”
In Sunday’s confrontation, the Russian coastguard fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels trying to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, between Russia’s mainland and the Crimean peninsula it annexed from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government said Russia has blocked commercial traffic to and from Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, a claim Russia quickly denied.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Poroshenko’s request is “clearly aimed at provoking further tensions” and driven by the Ukrainian leader’s “electoral and domestic policy motives”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she plans to press Russian President Vladimir Putin at this weekend’s G20 summit in Argentina to urge the release of the ships and crews, but added that “we can only resolve this in talks with one another because there is no military solution to all of these conflicts”.
While Nato condemned the Russian action, the allies will be unlikely to heed Mr Poroshenko’s request, which could trigger a confrontation with Russia.
A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine stipulates that agreement from each of the two littoral countries is required for warships from any other country to enter the internal sea.
Mr Poroshenko has responded to the incident by ordering martial law in much of the country, a move that went into effect with parliamentary approval.
Mr Putin accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking the naval incident in a bid to use martial law to shore up his sagging popularity and sideline competitors ahead of a March election.
Ukraine has released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on by Russia, saying they were in international waters west of the Kerch Strait.
Russia, meanwhile, insisted the Ukrainian vessels were in its territorial waters and refused to communicate with the Russian coast guard or accept a Russian pilot to guide them through the narrow strait.
“What were the border guards supposed to do?” Mr Putin said on Wednesday. “They fulfilled their duty to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. If they had done something differently, they should have been put on trial for that.”
The showdown comes amid the long-simmering conflicts between the two countries, in which Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supported separatists in Ukraine’s east with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons.
The fighting there has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 but eased somewhat after a 2015 truce.
The naval incident marked the first overt collision between Russian and Ukrainian militaries since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
It has fuelled fears of a wider conflict and has drawn strong criticism of Russia from the US and its allies.
In the interview with Bild, Mr Poroshenko lobbied the West for direct military support.
“Russian President Putin wants nothing less but to occupy the sea,” he said. “The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world.”
Mr Putin, for his part, criticised the West for what he described as connivance with Ukraine’s “provocation”.
“The authorities in Kiev are successfully selling anti-Russian sentiments as they have nothing else left to sell,” he said. “They can get away with whatever they do. If they want to eat babies for breakfast today, they will likely serve them too.”
Amid the tensions, the Russian military said it had deployed another batch of the long-range, S-400 air defence missile systems to Crimea.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he discussed the possibility of a Turkish mediation to resolve tensions between Russia and Ukraine and held separate telephone conversations with Mr Putin and Mr Poroshenko on Thursday.
Asked about the Turkish offer, Mr Peskov responded that “Moscow is grateful to all those willing to help de-escalate the tensions provoked by the Ukrainian side, but doesn’t see any need for mediation efforts”.
“Those who have such opportunities could help by exerting influence on the Ukrainian authorities,” Mr Peskov said.