BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has urged EU states to make clear to Russia that it will face tougher measures if it intensifies its "de facto blockade" of international shipping in the Sea of Azov.
A nonbinding resolution passed on October 25 called on EU member states to warn Moscow "that the targeted sanctions against Russia will be reinforced" if it further escalates actions it labeled as a “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
The parliament "deplores excessive actions of the Russian Federation in the Sea of Azov as far as they breach the international maritime law and Russia’s own international commitments," the resolution said.
Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, rejected the parliament’s stance as “total nonsense” and said Moscow has the “full right” to conduct its operations in the Sea of Azov.
It said it condemned "the excessive stopping and inspection of commercial vessels, including both Ukrainian ships and those with flags of third party states, including ships under flags of various EU member states."
The dispute stems from Moscow's construction of a 19-kilometer bridge over the Kerch Strait from Russia's Krasnodar Krai to Crimea's eastern end in 2016 -- two years after Russia seized control and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in a move that led to a series of sanctions against Moscow by the West.
The United States and the EU assailed the construction of the bridge, accusing Russia of impeding international shipping in the Sea of Azov by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait. The strait is the only path to reach Ukraine's territorial waters in the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea.
The European Parliament also expressed concern over the involvement of European companies in the construction of the bridge. It called on the European Commission "to assess and verify the application of the EU restrictive measures in force and on the member states to share information regarding any national customs or criminal investigations into cases of potential violations."
The parliament said it was instructing its president to forward the resolution to the EU member states, the European Council, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, the Ukrainian government and parliament, and the president, parliament, and government of Russia.
The office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised the EU Parliament statement and assailed the "Kremlin’s aggressive actions in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait."
"The Russian aggressor must understand that all his actions in violation of international law and bilateral agreements will continue to receive a strong and adequate response from the democratic community," the statement said.
"The European Union, together with Ukraine, will resist the creeping annexation of the Sea of Azov by Russia and violation of the freedom of navigation," it added.
In mid-May, following the bridge's completion, Russia reportedly moved naval vessels, including warships from its Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of Azov, citing a need for stepped-up security around the new structure.
Since then, Russia has detained more than 148 Ukrainian and foreign merchant ships -- many of them more than once -- and interrogated their crew members, Ukrainian officials, port authorities, local shipping companies, and experts told RFE/RL.