KYIV -- The Ukrainian Navy says Russian forces opened fire on a group of its ships in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula late on November 25, striking two warships and wounding two crew members before seizing the vessels along with a Ukrainian Navy tugboat.
The Ukrainian Navy announced the incident on a day of heightened tension after Russia reportedly blocked the three Ukrainian Navy ships from passing from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova late on November 25 accused Ukrainian authorities of using "gangster tactics" in the Kerch Strait -- first a provocation, then pressure, and finally accusations of aggression.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which oversees the country's border-guard service, said its forces fired weapons at the Ukrainian Navy ships to get them to stop after they had illegally entered Russia's territorial waters.
But the Ukrainian Navy says its vessels -- including two small-sized artillery boats -- were attacked by Russian coast-guard ships as they were leaving the 12-mile zone of the Kerch Strait and moving back into the Black Sea.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said late on November 25 that "Russian special forces have taken over some ships."
Poroshenko called a meeting of his military cabinet to evaluate and determine Ukraine's next steps.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it considered Russia's "aggressive actions" to be a violation of international law that would be met with "an international and diplomatic legal response."
Meanwhile, angry demonstrators were gathering in front of Russia's embassy in Kyiv late on November 25 after authorities announced the attack against the Ukrainian Navy ships.
Earlier the same day, Kyiv said a Russian coast-guard vessel rammed the Ukrainian Navy tugboat in the same area as three Ukrainian ships approached the Kerch Strait in an attempt to reach the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
Mariupol is the closest Ukrainian government-controlled city to Donetsk and Luhansk, the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
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."
'Complete Disregard' For International Law
The navy also accused Russia of demonstrating 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 said in a statement said. "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."
After that incident, Russian authorities closed passage by civilian ships through the Kerch Strait.
Russian authorities cited a local port authority to justify the closure on grounds of heightened security concerns.
In Brussels, the European Union late on November 25 called upon Russia "to restore freedom of passage"' in the Kerch Strait.
Meanwhile, 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 deescalation," she said.
"NATO fully supports Ukraine's sovereignty and its territorial integrity, including its navigational rights in its territorial waters," Lungescu said. "We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law."
The NATO spokeswoman also noted that the alliance's leaders at their Brussels summit in July "made clear that Russia's ongoing militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea, and the Azov Sea poses further threats to Ukraine's independence and undermines the stability of the broader region."
Areas Of Heightened Tensions
However, the FSB accused the Ukrainian Navy ships of illegally entering its waters and deliberately provoking a conflict.
The Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait, and the Black Sea waters off Crimea's southern coast have been areas of heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv since 2014 when Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea region and began supporting pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters.
But Moscow has been asserting greater control over the area since its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula -- particularly since May when it opened a new 19-kilometer Russian-built bridge that links the Crimea region to Russian territory to the east of the Kerch Strait.
Both sides have recently increased their military presence in the Azov region, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of harassing ships heading for Ukrainian ports such as Mariupol.
Ukraine's navy said in a statement that it was a Russian border-guard ship, the Don, that "rammed into our tugboat." It said the collision caused damage to the tugboat's engine, outer hull, and guardrail.
Russia's ships "carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian naval ships," the statement said, adding that the Ukrainian ships were continuing on their way "despite Russia's counteraction."
But the Kyiv-based UNIAN news agency reported later that the two small-sized armored artillery boats and the tugboat did not manage to enter the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian Navy spokesman Oleh Chalyk told Ukraine's Kanal 5 TV that the tugboat "established contact with a coast-guard outpost" operated by the FSB Border Service and "communicated its intention to sail through the Kerch Strait."
"The information was received [by Russian authorities] but no response was given," Chalylk said.
But the FSB said the Ukrainian ships "illegally entered a temporarily closed area of Russian territorial waters" without authorization.
It said that Ukraine’s ships were carrying out "provocative actions" aimed at creating "a conflict situation in this region."
The FSB statement did not mention the ramming of the Ukrainian tugboat.
Later on November 25, several hours before the reports of Russian forces firing on Ukrainian Navy ships, the FSB said two other Ukrainian ships -- two armored Gyurza-class gunboats – had left Ukraine's Sea of Azov port at Berdyansk and were sailing south toward the Kerch Strait at top speed.
Russian officials said after the reported shooting incident in the Black Sea that those Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov turned back to Berdyansk before reaching the Kerch Strait.
The FSB also warned Kyiv against "reckless decisions," saying that Russia was taking "all necessary measures to curb this provocation," Interfax reported.
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Information Policy Committee of the Russian Federation Council, accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of directly ordering the Ukrainian ships to carry out what he called "a purposeful provocation."
"Such things are not carried out without the head of state's knowledge, consent, and -- I think -- initiative," Pushkov told Russia's state-run Rossia 24 TV channel.