Demonstrators gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kiev Sunday, setting an embassy car on fire over Moscow’s earlier capture of three Ukrainian ships.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Sunday he supported imposing martial law in response to the incident, with the parliament in Kiev set to decide on the extraordinary move Monday.
The events that unfolded Sunday mark a significant escalation in fighting between Ukraine and Russia, with each side blaming the other after a tugboat and two gunships were seized and several Ukrainian naval officers were shot.
Poroshenko called the incident “unprovoked and crazy” but said the introduction of martial law was not a “declaration of war.”
“Ukraine does not plan to fight anyone,” he said.
At the same time, Ukraine’s defense ministry announced it had put the military on full combat readiness.
In Moscow the Kremlin accused Ukraine of illegally attempting to enter Russian waters, and of using “gangster tactics” to deliberately escalate the conflict.
Moscow reopened the Kerch Strait — the water connecting the Kerch Peninsula of Crimea and the Russian Taman Peninsula — to shipping Monday after closing it Sunday citing security reasons.
Ukraine's Berdyansk and Nikopol gunboats, and the Yana Kapa tugboat, set out from the Black Sea port of Odessa Sunday on their way to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine said the Russian coast guard attempted to intercept the ships and a video posted by Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov appears to show a Russian coast-guard vessel ramming the Ukrainian tugboat.
The ships continued, heading toward the Kerch Strait — the only access point to the Sea of Azov.
Here, Russia positioned a large tanker underneath a Russian-built bridge, effectively blocking all access.
The standoff quickly escalated, with Moscow scrambling two fighter jets and two helicopters to the area. Russian forces then surrounded the Ukrainian ships, opening fire on the warships and wounding six crew members, before seizing all three vessels.
What is Ukraine saying?
The Ukrainian Navy said the collision happened because “the invaders' dispatcher service refuses to ensure the right to freedom of navigation, guaranteed by international agreements.” The statement added that the Russian forces showed an “aggressive nature and complete disregard for the norms of international law.”
"The ships of the Ukrainian Navy continue to perform tasks in compliance with all norms of international law,” the Ukrainian Navy added. “All illegal actions are recorded by the crews of the ships and the command of Ukraine's Navy and will be handed over to the respective international bodies.
Ukraine’s ships and their crew are being held in the Crimean port of Kerch, according to eyewitness reports. Kiev claims it has had no contact with any of the crew.
What is Russia saying?
The Ukranian ships were illegally attempting to enter Russian territorial waters and after they refused to stop "weapons were used to force the Ukrainian warships to stop,” the Kremlin said.
“The Ukrainian Navy’s vessels the Berdyansk, the Nikopol and the Yany Kapu, which violated Russia’s state border this morning, made another attempt of committing illegal activities in Russia’s territorial sea at 19:00 Moscow time on November 25,” the Federal Security Service (FSB), which oversees the country's border guard service, said Sunday.
“They did not respond to legitimate demands by the ships and boats of Russia’s FSB Border Guard Service escorting them to stop immediately and performed dangerous maneuvers.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Ukrainian authorities of using "gangster tactics" in the Kerch Strait by deliberately provoking a conflict.
Why is this region so critical?
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait have become crucial economic lifelines for Ukraine. The waters, including parts of the Black Sea, have become areas of heightened tensions between the countries in recent months.
Kiev has accused Moscow of harassing ships heading towards Mariupol, a key industrial port city with a population of around 500,000 that sits roughly 500 miles southeast of the capital. It is the closest Ukrainian government-controlled city to Donetsk and Luhansk, the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
While a 2003 treaty between the two countries designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, since 2014, Moscow has been exerting greater control of the area.
Tensions escalated in May when Moscow opened a new 12-mile Russian-built bridge linking the Crimea region to Russian territory to the east of the Kerch Strait.
Both sides have built up their military presence in the waters in recent weeks.
What is the international reaction?
The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting at 11am Monday to discuss the situation according to U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance was “closely monitoring developments” in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait and was in contact with the Ukrainian authorities. “We call for restraint and de-escalation,” she said.
Late Sunday, the EU called on Russia “to restore freedom of passage” in the Kerch Strait. Russian news agencies reported Monday that the strait was reopened for shipping.
Neither the White House nor the State Department has issued a statement on the incident, but U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, tweeted about Russia’s claims.
Donald Trump did tweet about European countries having to pay their “fair share” for military protection, referencing NATO, though it was unclear if he was aware of the situation in Ukraine at the time.
Cover image: Russian jet fighters fly over a bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula with a cargo ship beneath it after three Ukrainian navy vessels were stopped by Russia from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea, Crimea November 25, 2018. (REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov)