On November 25, two small Ukrainian artillery ships and a tugboat were prevented by Russian vessels from crossing the narrow Kerch Strait and reaching the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which both countries share. Ukraine accuses Russia of open aggression and released what it calls intercepted communications from the Russian ships’ captains and military aircraft in the area that appear to support its case. In his most fiery rhetoric of the crisis, the Ukrainian president Poroshenko accused Putin of wanting to annex Ukraine, telling the German newspaper Bild on last Thursday: “Don’t believe Putin’s lies. Putin wants the old Russian empire back.”

Moscow says the Ukrainian ships ignored the normal procedure for crossing the Kerch Strait and so were treated as hostile craft. The Kremlin claims Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko planned the “provocation” to boost his ratings before elections next March, but it has not adequately explained why Russian forces needed to chase, disable, and impound the ships as they sailed away from the Kerch Strait.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, following a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on November 26, said: “What we saw yesterday was very serious, because we saw actually that Russia used military force against Ukraine, in an open and direct way. We saw that they fired at Ukrainian ships; that they actually seized and captured ships and personnel, and we have seen reports that several of the personnel that were seized or captured, are wounded. So, this is escalating the situation in the region and it confirms a pattern of behavior that we have seen over several years, where Russia illegally annexed Crimea, continued to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, and now also uses a military force in a very direct way, in the Sea of Azov or the Kerch Strait. So of course, this is serious.”

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