Ukrainian sailors, interviewed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) after the standoff near the Crimean coast in the Kerch Starit, admitted on camera in detention that they deliberately violated Russian borders.
The FSB has claimed in a statement that the naval standoff in Crimean waters was a “provocative act of the Ukrainian Navy executed upon direct orders by the government in Kiev.” The clash took place on Sunday in the Kerch Strait, which connects mainland Russia and the Crimean peninsula. It involved Ukrainian ships and Russian coast guard vessels.
FSB noted that the territorial waters entered by Ukrainian vessels belonged to Russia even before 2014, when Crimean citizens voted to reunify with the country. It also said two officers from the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, were embedded with the intruder ships to coordinate the incursion.
The Federal Security Service released footage of three men identified as Ukrainian service members who had been on the ships. In the video the men are speaking on camera in detention. They said that their crews deliberately violated Russian maritime borders and ignored repeated orders to stop. In the footage the men look constrained, but bear no indication of having been subjected to violence.
Previously, the FSB said they had detected the Ukrainian flotilla early on, long before it tried to enter Russian waters. Under a maritime protocol, all ships passing through the busy, narrow Kerch Strait should send notifications and report their route. While Kiev says it notified Russian authorities in advance that its navy ships would be sailing through the area, Moscow denies that it was given warning.
While some Western politicians and pundits habitually framed the incident as Russia’s attempt to escalate tensions, there are others who are less convinced.
Commenting on the incident, Virginia Senator Rickard Black said both sides have “some merit to their claims,” because Ukraine and Russia enjoy the freedom of navigation in the strait under a 2003 treaty. However, the Ukrainians “were perhaps a bit reckless and perhaps there was an intention to create a provocation.”
He also noted that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has “an 80-percent disapproval rating” and he is up for re-election in 2019. “I don’t discount the fact that this may have been tied in to the 2019 Ukraine elections,” Black stated.
On the heels of the incident, Poroshenko has imposed martial law in the country – a move which could allow him to call off scheduled elections and remain in power. Moscow has accused Kiev of provoking the entire incident to win sympathy in the West and to help Poroshenko to remain in office.