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Seemingly In Unison, Moscow Cries Ukrainian 'Provocation' Ordered By Washington

Russia Seizes Ukrainian Ships In Naval Clash
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WATCH: Russia Seizes Ukrainian Ships In Naval Clash

Russia has accused Ukraine of planning and staging a deliberate "provocation" for political purposes following a naval incident in the Kerch Strait that marked the first public acknowledgement by Moscow of its forces firing on Ukrainian troops since the onset of fighting in eastern Ukraine nearly five years ago.

Kyiv insists Russia is waging a "hybrid war" on Ukraine, and that the ramming, firing-on, and seizure of its vessels with their crews outside the Sea of Azov is just the latest attack in a long-running, separatism-fueled conflict with Moscow and its proxies.

The UN Security Council called a special session for later on November 26 to discuss the situation.

"We're dealing with a very dangerous provocation, and this of course demands special attention and a special investigation," Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on November 26. He said the Kremlin would refrain from further comment until the Russian Foreign Ministry made a detailed statement about the incident.

Kyiv regards the incident as evidence of continuing Russian aggression in a region where Moscow used to call the shots, and alleges that Russia continues to wage a hybrid war against its smaller neighbor.

'Worst Fears Confirmed'

Moscow counters that Ukraine's government is provoking conflict under orders from Washington.

"Literally the whole basis of the politics of Poroshenko and his regime is a provocation," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook, without citing any evidence.

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (file photo)
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (file photo)

Chalking the incident up to efforts by the Poroshenko administration to raise his approval rating and distract from domestic issues, Zakharova's statements echoed those of other Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin.

Karasin claimed that the Sea of Azov had been specifically chosen for its strategic location -- where "provocative activities by Ukraine can bring rapid and required results for an international scandal."

"Unfortunately our worst fears have been confirmed," Karashin told RIA Novosti.

Russian state media have given generous coverage to the incident, devoting several live TV debates to the issue. "Maritime Aggression" was the title of a report on the prime-time Sunday evening show News of the Week, in which Russian state media boss and presenter Dmitry Kiselyov claimed the clash near the Kerch Strait was a Western-led provocation aimed at undermining a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Argentina on November 30.

"Ships of the Ukrainian Navy are still in our territorial waters, but they're adrift. They're waiting for something," Kiselyov said on the evening of November 25, as news of the event was still unfolding. "It's unwise to sink the trespassers, since that's clearly exactly what they want. All we can do is pray that the rusty old barges of the Ukrainian Navy don't sink themselves, as they'll pin that on Russia in any case."

Russian state TV anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov (file photo)
Russian state TV anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov (file photo)

Russia has bolstered naval forces into the area over the past year -- with an overmatched Ukraine trying to do the same -- and routinely detained Ukrainian vessels in waters that Kyiv still regards as its own or at least shared, according to a bilateral agreement from 2003.

In an interview with news channel Rossia 24, the Moscow-installed leader in Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, said the conflict is being provoked by "psychologically abnormal people" in Ukraine who have no concern for the fate of their citizens. "Crimea has returned to Russia forever," he said. "So there's nothing in the cards for them."

'Military Adventurism'

The United Nations gave overwhelming support to a 2014 resolution underscoring Ukraine's territorial integrity following Russia's seizure of Crimea and with Russia-backed separatists fighting for control of swaths of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Russian officials have also publicly targeted international support for Ukraine's version of the November 25 events, calling out their counterparts in the European Union for risking further escalations with their statements of support for Kyiv.

After European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that he condemned Russia's use of force in the Sea of Azov, Andrei Klimov, a member of Russia's Federation Council, issued a bitter rebuke and accused the EU of encouraging Ukraine's president to engage in "military adventurism."

"The EU does not understand the consequences of such decisions, that it encourages such actions by Poroshenko," Klimov told RIA Novosti. "This is the same as placing a machine gun and flame thrower in the hands of a psychopath and watching how he acts in a recreation park where people are taking walks."

Poll Boost?

Yet while the Russian narrative has zeroed in on the notion that Poroshenko is angling for approval ratings ahead of a planned vote in Ukraine in March, some commentators in Russia painted the incident as a ploy by Russia's president to improve his own political standing.

"Putin's approval rating this month is 66%, slowly going down to its lowest pre-Crimean level," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter, referring to a period before Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 boosted outward displays of patriotism and raised Putin's domestic ratings. "Why not to mobilize domestic audience, demonstrating military force in the sea?"

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Milov (file photo)
Russian opposition figure Vladimir Milov (file photo)

But if this was the Kremlin's tactic, at least some Russians appear convinced that it might have unintended consequences.

Vladimir Milov, a prominent member of the Russian opposition, argued that the Ukrainian Navy might have been trying to test Russia's resolve in preventing it from entering the Kerch Strait.

"If the goal was to scare the Ukrainians so that they 'stop trespassing,' then the way this was done they'll definitely 'trespass' again," Milov wrote on Facebook. "There'll be consequences for Putin, 100%, talk of a new round of sanctions will now get a fresh impulse."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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