Russia-Ukraine Kerch Strait incident draws international condemnation

November 27, 2018 GMT

With Ukraine “screaming for help” and moving toward martial law, the U.S., NATO and other international leaders on Monday promised serious consequences for Russia’s latest act of aggression against its neighbor but they struggled to find concrete ways to resist an emboldened Kremlin in the region.

The tension complicates an already frosty relationship between Moscow and Washington and puts renewed pressure on President Trump as he prepares to meet face to face with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at a high-stakes Group of 20 gathering this week in Argentina.

Ukrainian officials and American lawmakers Monday called on the president to take a clear stand against Mr. Putin in Buenos Aires and to make clear the U.S. sides with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Kiev traded blame for a Sunday incident in which Russians rammed and fired on three Ukrainian ships passing through the disputed Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. At least six Ukrainian seamen were injured, and the crews of all three ships were taken captive.

Ukraine says its vessels were traveling in international waters in the narrow strait, which is spanned by a Russian bridge completed this year. Russia challenges those claims and has been more aggressive in asserting its control over the passage since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The international community was largely united in blaming Moscow as efforts escalated to keep the clash from becoming an all-out war.

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations in New York, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted Russia’s “outlaw actions” and cast them as the latest in a series of provocations that began with Moscow’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“What we witnessed this weekend is yet another reckless Russian escalation,” said Mrs. Haley, one of Mr. Putin’s fiercest critics in the Trump administration. “The United States continues to stand with the people of Ukraine against this Russian aggression.”

Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council that Russia’s claim that Ukrainian ships violated Russia’s borders “is an outright lie.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that statement while calling on both parties to “exercise restraint” and stop the crisis from spiraling out of control.

Speaking to reporters at the White House just before traveling to Mississippi for a campaign event, President Trump described the incident as “not good.”

“I’m not happy about it at all. Not at all. We’ve let our position be known, and we’re not happy about it,” he said.

But neither Mr. Trump nor his aides suggested that the White House would impose further economic sanctions on Russia or respond with other punitive action. The U.S. has imposed a host of sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its meddling in the 2016 American presidential election.

American officials also offered no hints that the U.S. would increase its military presence in Eastern Europe or in the Black Sea as a warning to the Kremlin that some lawmakers are advocating.

NATO officials also issued harsh statements but offered little in the way of tangible action.

“We call for restraint and de-escalation,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea in accordance with international law.”

‘Direct military confrontation’

Inside Ukraine, officials described the situation as dire. They warned that Eastern Europe could be in serious danger from a more assertive Mr. Putin if Russian actions are left unchecked. They also cast the confrontation in the Kerch Strait as a potential first step toward war.

Relations between the two countries, once linked in the Soviet Union, have become frayed from suspected Russian support for a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has left the country divided and thousands dead.

“Ukraine isn’t simply in danger. Ukraine is screaming for help,” said Alex Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament. “We have to plan out a strategy of deterring the aggressor along with the Western world. ... There are now absolutely no doubts that we are entering a long-term phase of a direct military confrontation with Russia.”

Although Ukrainian troops were placed on full alert across the country Monday, President Petro Poroshenko said the nation must go further. He took the extraordinary step of calling on parliament to impose a temporary martial law across 10 of the country’s 27 regions, including those bordering Russia.

The parliament approved the martial law declaration Monday afternoon, and the president tried to calm concerns.

“Martial law doesn’t mean declaring a war,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine’s defense in the light of a growing aggression from Russia.”

Critics wondered whether Mr. Poroshenko’s call for martial law was the first step toward postponing the nation’s presidential election, which is scheduled for March. Oksana Syroid, a deputy speaker of parliament, said martial law was not declared during the Crimea crisis in 2014 and that doing so now presents “a wonderful chance to manipulate the presidential elections,” she said.

Moscow has vehemently denied responsibility for the incident and said the Ukrainian ships engaged in a “gross violation of the rules of peaceful passage” in Russian waters. Russia claims control over the Kerch Strait.

Russian officials also blamed the U.S. and European Union for concocting a reason to impose more sanctions and directly accused Mr. Poroshenko of political motives.

“Clearly, this is a well-thought-out provocation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday. “Clearly, all of this was also designed to distract attention from the domestic political problems that exist in Ukraine. This assumption is further corroborated by Kiev’s plans to impose martial law in the country, a move which is odious in the light of the upcoming presidential elections in the spring of 2019.”

Pressure on Trump

For President Trump, the Kerch Strait clash comes at a pivotal moment. The U.S. president has been under intense pressure to take a harder line with Mr. Putin at this week’s Group of 20 meeting and to avoid a repeat of the joint press conference this summer with the Russian leader in Helsinki.

Mr. Trump was widely panned at that press conference for taking an insufficiently tough stance with Mr. Putin. Citing Mr. Putin’s own denials, the U.S. president would not say he believed his own intelligence assessments that Russia meddled in the 2016 American election.

The G-20 gathering offers Mr. Trump a second chance to project strength alongside Mr. Putin. Critics say Moscow’s hostilities over the weekend make it even more vital for Mr. Trump to take a different tack this time.

“Once again, the Kremlin has shown that it only respects a strong adversary that is willing to stand up to bullies,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “At this precarious time, the U.S. cannot afford a weak performance by President Trump at the G-20 like we saw in Helsinki.”

Lawmakers said a weak response could lead other countries particularly China to test the administration in international territory disputes with the U.S. and its allies.

“There are principles here that go beyond the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, or even Crimea, about free passage and international waters and those kinds of questions,” Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent, told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Still, some regional analysts warned that the U.S. must avoid overreacting.

Sunday’s “incident is an example of the challenge in maintaining a balanced policy toward Russia,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, a senior fellow and defense scholar at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates a more measured U.S. foreign policy.

“When Russia acts badly by murdering people abroad, suppressing dissent, meddling abroad or military aggression U.S. leaders should vocally disapprove and use policy to demonstrate that such actions have a cost. At the same time, U.S. leaders should keep the following in mind: The United States is not responsible for protecting Ukraine. No treaty or important U.S. interest obligates the United States to fight for Ukraine.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.