A military confrontation erupted directly between Ukrainian and Russian military forces last Sunday off the coast of the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula when two Ukrainian cutters and a tugboat heading from one Ukrainian port to another attempted to pass through a narrow sea passage known as the Kerch Strait. The strait is close to the Crimean Peninsula that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russia would not let the ships pass, blocking them with a grounded tanker under a bridge Russia had constructed linking the Crimea Peninsula it had illegally annexed in 2014 with the Russian mainland. Not able to proceed to their destination because of Russia’s blockage, the Ukrainian cutters reportedly turned around. According to Ukraine’s account, Ukraine’s vessels were heading back to where they came from when Russia fired on the ships, injuring several sailors. Russia then seized the vessels, with what has been reported to be either 23 or 24 sailors on board. A Russian court on Tuesday ordered 12 of the captured sailors to remain in Russian custody for at least two months. The other captured sailors could meet the same fate when they are expected to appear in Russian court on Wednesday. If convicted on charges of colluding to cross Russia’s border illegally, the sailors could be jailed for as long as six years.
Although all-out war has not broken out yet, the region is on edge as Russia tries to leverage its control over Crimea on the ground to establish its claims of territorial dominion over the surrounding waters. Russia is also demonstrating its power over Ukraine’s economy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine’s economy by limiting its freedom to send ships to ports on the Sea of Azov. Freedom of passage is necessary for Ukraine to support heavy industry on which thousands of Ukrainians depend for their livelihood. By land and sea, Russia is tightening the noose around Ukraine’s neck.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in the troubled areas of his country bordering Russia for 30 days after receiving approval from Ukraine’s parliament, a move that Russia condemned as a provocation. “The imposition of martial law in various regions potentially could lead to the threat of an escalation of tension in the conflict region, in the southeast” of Ukraine, President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.