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Ukraine Backs Martial Law After Gunfire At Sea


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a parliamentary debate on the introduction of martial law on November 26

KYIV -- The Ukrainian parliament has voted to impose martial law for 30 days after Russian forces fired on Ukrainian ships and seized 23 sailors in the Black Sea off the coast of the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula.

The vote on November 26 came as tensions between Moscow and Kyiv reached new heights after an unprecedented maritime incident, in which a Russian vessel rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat and captured more than 20 servicemen.

After heated debates, lawmakers backed President Petro Poroshenko's request to bring in martial law that would last 30 days starting from November 28.

The measures will include a partial mobilization, a strengthening of Ukraine's air defenses, and several with broad wording -- such as unspecified steps "to strengthen the counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and countersabotage regime and information security."

Martial law will be introduced in areas of the country most vulnerable to "aggression from Russia."

In a parliament that is composed of 450 deputies, 276 lawmakers voted in favor of the plan, with 30 voting against.

Lawmakers also stated that the next presidential election in Ukraine will take place on March 31, 2019.

The decision marks the first time Kyiv has taken such a step since Russia seized Crimea in March 2014, following the downfall of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, and backed separatists fighting Kyiv's forces in a war that erupted in eastern Ukraine the following month.

Before submitting the decree, Poroshenko had demanded that Russia immediately release the ships and sailors, who he said had been "brutally detained in violation of international law."

He also urged Moscow to "ensure deescalation of the situation in the Sea of Azov as a first step" and to ease tension more broadly.

But Russia gave no indication it would release the sailors. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Ukrainian sailors would be held responsible under Russian law for violating the border, but did not specify what that meant.

Western Criticism

Western leaders criticized Russia and echoed Kyiv's call for the release of the Ukrainian servicemen.

Speaking at a November 26 meeting of the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned Russia that its seizure of three Ukrainian vessels was an "outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory" and "an arrogant act that the international community must condemn."

Haley added that "the United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia. But outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible."

"We do not like what's happening either way. And hopefully it will get straightened out," U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters as he left the White House.

Trump said European leaders were working on the situation.

"They're not thrilled. We're all working on it together," he said.

U.S. Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo said Russia's seizure of Ukrainian vessels represented "a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law."

"The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action. We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters," Pompeo said in a November 26 statement where he also called on both sides to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments.

European Council President Donald Tusk condemned the "Russian use of force" and tweeted that "Russian authorities must return Ukrainian sailors, vessels & refrain from further provocations," adding: "Europe will stay united in support of Ukraine."

For his part, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to release Ukrainian Navy ships and sailors, saying there was no justification for Moscow's actions.

"What we saw yesterday was very serious," Stoltenberg told a news conference after an emergency meeting of the Western military alliance held at the request of Ukraine.

"All allies expressed full support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," he added. "There is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel, so we call on Russia to release immediately the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized yesterday."

The U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that the OSCE's Permanent Council would meet in Vienna to discuss "Russia's aggression against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait" -- the narrow body of water, now spanned by a bridge from Russia to Crimea, that is the only route for ships traveling between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has several ports, including Mariupol.

Poroshenko spoke by phone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key player in Western efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The imposition of martial law could give his government the power to restrict public demonstrations, regulate the media, and potentially postpone a presidential election slated to be held in late March, among other things.

Speaking to lawmakers amid turmoil inside parliament and protests by nationalists outside, Poroshenko -- who polls indicate faces an uphill battle for reelection -- promised that citizens' rights would not be restricted and the vote would be held on schedule.

While the initial decree he put forward called for a 60-day period of martial law, he adjusted that down to 30 days.

Three of Poroshenko's four predecessors as president of Ukraine, which gained independence from Moscow in the 1991 Soviet collapse -- Viktor Yushchenko, Leonid Kuchma, and Leonid Kravchuk -- had warned against approving the martial-law decree as submitted. They said that, if lawmakers were to pass it, they should ensure it was amended to make clear that basic rights and freedoms would be preserved and elections would not be canceled.

'Threat Of Large-Scale Invasion'

Poroshenko's decree said that martial law was needed due to the naval incident, which it called "another act of armed aggression," as well as "other aggressive actions of the Russian Federation in the Azov and Black Seas."

It also cited "the ongoing threat of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the occupation by the Russian Federation" of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Kyiv of violating international norms with "dangerous methods that created threats and risks for the normal movement of ships in the area."

An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was called for later in the day, and NATO ambassadors were meeting their Ukrainian counterpart in Brussels to discuss the situation.

Russia Seizes Ukrainian Ships In Naval Clash
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​In a sharp escalation of tension between the two countries, Russian forces on November 25 fired on two warships, wounding six crew members, before seizing the vessels along with a Ukrainian Navy tugboat.

Kyiv said it had not been in contact with 23 sailors who it said were taken captive.

The three Ukrainian vessels were being held at the Crimean port of Kerch, the Reuters news agency quoted an eyewitness as saying on November 26. The witness said people in naval-style uniforms could be seen around the ships.

The Russian gunfire and seizure of the vessels and crews came on a day of heightened tension after Russia prevented the boats from passing from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Ukrainian authorities of using "gangster tactics" -- 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 at the Ukrainian Navy ships to get them to stop after they had illegally entered Russian territorial waters.

"In order to stop the Ukrainian military ships, weapons were used," the FSB said. It also confirmed that three Ukrainian Navy ships were “boarded and searched."

But the Ukrainian Navy said its vessels -- including two small artillery boats -- were attacked by Russian coast-guard ships as they were leaving the Kerch Strait and moving back into the Black Sea.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Russia's "aggressive actions" violated international law and should be met with "an international and diplomatic legal response."

Demonstrators protested outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv late on November 25.

Protest At Russian Embassy In Kyiv After Ukrainian Ships Seized
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Earlier on November 25, 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.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov posted a video of the ramming on his Facebook page.

Mariupol is the closest government-controlled port to the parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

It has been targeted by the anti-Kyiv forces at times during the war that has killed more than 10,300 people since it erupted shortly after Russia seized Crimea.

In a reference to Russia, the Ukrainian Navy said the collision occurred because "the invaders' dispatcher service refuses to ensure the right to freedom of navigation, guaranteed by international agreements."

"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. "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."

"The ships of the Ukrainian Navy continue to perform tasks in compliance with all norms of international law," the Navy said in a statement.

NATO Calls For Restraint

After that incident, Russian authorities closed passage by civilian ships through the Kerch Strait on grounds of heightened security concerns.

Russian news agencies quoted a local port authority as saying that the strait was reopened for shipping early on November 26.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said NATO was "closely monitoring developments" and was "in contact with the Ukrainian authorities, adding: "We call for restraint and deescalation."

"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 spokeswoman stressed that at a summit in July, NATO "made clear that Russia's ongoing militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea, and the Azov Sea pose further threats to Ukraine's independence and undermines the stability of the broader region."

The Foreign Ministry of Turkey, which lies across the Black Sea from Ukraine and Russia, called for calm, voiced concern and stressed that "passage should not be blocked on the Kerch Strait."

Russia claimed it did nothing wrong. The FSB accused the Ukrainian Navy ships of illegally entering its territorial waters and deliberately provoking a conflict.

The Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait, and the Black Sea waters off Crimea have been areas of heightened tension since March 2014,when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and began supporting pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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 since its takeover of Crimea -- particularly since May, when it opened a bridge linking the peninsula to Russian territory on the eastern side of the Kerch Strait.

Both sides have recently increased their military presence in the region, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of harassing ships heading toward Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, such as Mariupol and Berdyansk.

The Ukrainian Navy said 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."

The FSB, however, said the Ukrainian ships "illegally entered a temporarily closed area of Russian territorial waters" without authorization. In a statement, it did not mention the ramming of the Ukrainian tugboat.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv, Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, AFP, AP, Reuters, UNIAN, and Interfax
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