Russia-Ukraine maritime row: Here’s what you need to know

10 Dec, 2021

Moscow has accused Kiev of endangering navigation near Crimea after a Ukrainian naval vessel sailed close to Russian waters, without permission, and refused to acknowledge commands to change its course, on Thursday night.

Tensions were running high on Thursday evening as Russia claimed that a Ukrainian Navy ship came dangerously close to its waters.

What did Russia say about the Ukrainian ship?

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which is responsible for border protection, said the Ukrainian Navy command vessel ‘Donbass’ left the Port of Mariupol in Ukraine on the Azov Sea, and was heading towards the Kerch Strait, which connects to the Black Sea. The narrow waterway also separates Crimea from mainland Russia.

The ship did not have permission to pass through the strait and did not respond to commands to change its course, the FSB said, adding that the Ukrainian vessel was being closely tracked by a Russian Coast Guard ship.

How did Ukraine respond?

Ukraine’s Border Guard Service told the media in Kiev that it had no information about the situation.

What about Biden and Zelensky?

While the crisis unfolded, US President Joe Biden was speaking over the phone with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. The leaders discussed ways to end the conflict in the eastern parts of Ukraine, as well as current tensions with Russia, according to Zelensky’s team.

Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, Andrey Sibiha, told Ukrainian TV channel 1+1 that Ukraine’s military and energy security was “the key issue” of the talks.

What happened to the Ukrainian ship?

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Roughly at the same time the Biden-Zelensky call ended, the FSB said that the ‘Donbass’ finally changed its course, turning away from Russian waters. “We view the actions of the Ukrainian ship’s crew as provocative and a threat to the safety of navigation,” the FSB said.

The spokesperson for the Center of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO), a Ukrainian military body, confirmed that the vessel was heading to its home port. The spokesperson claimed that the ship was sailing in Ukrainian waters and did not enter “sensitive areas.”

Ukrainian Defense Minister Aleksey Reznikov said that the vessel did not violate any rules and was unarmed. He dismissed the claims made by Russia as “disinformation.”

“I want to tell everyone that there was no threat to our ship and its crew. It has nearly returned to the port by now. There were no incidents,” he said.

How did we get here?

Kiev continues to consider Crimea part of its territory, despite the peninsula voting to leave Ukraine and join Russia in 2014.

This creates the potential for maritime conflicts between the neighboring countries, such as the dramatic standoff in 2018 when Russia seized three Ukrainian warships which, according to Moscow, violated the rules for vessels sailing through the Kerch Strait.

Several Ukrainian sailors were wounded in the altercation. Kiev denied any wrongdoing and accused Moscow of unprovoked aggression. Ukrainian crews were arrested by Moscow and handed over to Kiev in 2019. The captured ships were returned as well.

What’s the bigger picture?

In recent weeks, Western officials and the media have been accusing Russia of amassing troops and military hardware for a potential invasion of Ukraine. Moscow repeatedly denied it was gearing up to attack its neighbor.

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Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke via video link for around two hours on Tuesday in an effort to defuse the tensions. According to the Kremlin, Putin told Biden that Moscow wants guarantees from Washington that NATO will stop moving closer to the Russian border.

The White House said Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and called for de-escalation.

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