U.S., NATO press Russia to free Ukrainian ships and sailors

Soldier patrolling ship (© Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stands guard on a ship in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, Ukraine, on December 3. (© Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Images)

The United States and its European allies are resolute in demanding that Russia immediately release the three Ukrainian vessels and 24 crew members it seized November 25 and keep the Kerch Strait open to ships traveling to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the incident the latest in a series of blatant violations of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty, including Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“There is complete unanimity that the Russian action was lawless and unacceptable, and deterrence must be restored,” Pompeo said December 4 after NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels.

Russian forces rammed and fired on the Ukrainian ships, injuring crew members, and seized the ships and personnel in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait.

Map showing Kerch Strait and waters and countries around it (State Dept./L. Rawls)
(State Dept./L. Rawls)

Europe and the world are collectively committed “to deny Russia the capacity to continue to violate basic international law norms” and “to develop a set of responses that demonstrate to Russia that this behavior is simply unacceptable,” the secretary of state said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that after the purported annexation of Crimea, Russia now is attempting to use it “to expand its influence and control the Sea of Azov.”

Russia must “allow freedom of navigation and allow unhindered access to Ukrainian ports,” Stoltenberg said.

The United States is coordinating with the European allies to do more to help Ukraine.

U.S. officials view Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait as a dangerous escalation and note it was the first time the Russians have openly admitted using their own forces to carry out an attack on Ukrainian forces.

President Trump cancelled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, over the incident.