US-Russia Gulf Widens After Naval Clash in Disputed Black Sea Waters

By Patrick Goodenough | November 27, 2018 | 4:21am EST
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley listens to Russia's delegate during a U.N. Security Council session on Russia-Ukraine tensions, on Monday, November 26, 2018. (Screen capture: U.N. Webcast)

( – Monday’s emergency U.N. Security Council session on a Russia-Ukraine naval clash revealed a deepening gulf between permanent members, with the U.S. saying Russia’s actions were “no way for a law-abiding, civilized nation to act,” and Russia telling the West that Crimea belongs to Russia, “whether you like it or not.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called Russia’s actions an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” while Russia’s delegate accused the West of giving Ukraine a blank check to carry out acts of aggression designed to keep the “Kyiv regime” in power.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko won the backing of parliament for a 30-day period of martial law, beginning Wednesday, in specified parts of the country.

Russia and Ukraine agree that the Russian navy on Sunday opened fire on and seized three small Ukrainian naval vessels in the waters near the Kerch Strait linking the Black and Azov Seas. But other from that, their versions differ significantly.

Moscow claims it was defending its territorial waters after Ukraine’s ships crossed Russia’s maritime border near Crimea, in what it calls a premeditated provocation designed to justify more sanctions. (Russia’s claims to those waters are based on its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which the West views as illegal and most of the international community does not recognize.)

(Image: Google Maps)

“Russia has repeatedly warned the Kiev regime and its Western patrons about the danger of inflating artificial hysteria in connection with the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait,” said the foreign ministry in Moscow.

Kyiv, however, says the Russians blocked waters where it should have freedom of passage under international law, intentionally preventing its ships from moving between two Ukrainian ports – Odessa and Mariupol – ramming one of the vessels in the process and using the force of arms to gets its way. The ships and 23 crew members, three of whom were hospitalized for injuries, remain in Russian hands.

At the meeting in New York, Haley backed that version of events.

“Ukrainian ships set sail from one Ukrainian port to another Ukrainian port. They attempted to do so by the only possible way to go, through the Kerch Strait,” she said.

“Both Russia and Ukraine use the strait routinely. But this time, Russia decided to prevent passage of the Ukrainian ships, rammed them, and then opened fire on them.”

“This is no way for a law-abiding, civilized nation to act,” Haley continued. “Impeding Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait is a violation under international law. It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept.”

The outgoing U.S. ambassador stressed that her remarks reflected the concerns of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom she said she had spoken to earlier in the day.

“As President Trump said many times, the United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia,” she said. “But outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible.”

‘Whether you like it or not’

Russian deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy accused Western nations of giving “carte blanche” to Kyiv’s acts of aggression.

Russian Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy addresses the U.N. Security Council on Monday, November 26, 2018, during an emergency session on Russia-Ukraine tensions. (Screen capture: U.N. Webcast)

He also rejected – again – the West’s contention that Crimea belongs to Ukraine, arguing that that issue had been put to rest more than four years ago – “whether you like it or not” – when the region’s inhabitants had voted in a referendum to join the Russian Federation.

Most of the international community did not recognize the legitimacy or outcome of that March 2014 vote, and the U.S. and European Union have imposed several rounds of sanctions in response.

In a statement Monday, Pompeo reiterated that the U.S. “supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters, as well as the right of its vessels to traverse international waters.”

“As stated in our Crimea Declaration, the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea,” added Pompeo, who also spoke by phone with Poroshenko.

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s parliament voted to allow the president to impose martial law for 30 days, in ten regions mostly adjacent to Russian territory and Russian-claimed Ukrainian territory.

Earlier Poroshenko had requested authorization for a 60-day period, and some critics accused him of wanting to use the Kerch Strait incident to postpone presidential elections scheduled for next spring – an insinuation also made by Moscow.

(Poroshenko is lagging in the opinion polls, running third behind former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and a television comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has yet to declare his candidacy.)

In the event, Poroshenko adjusted the request to 30 days, “so that it does not delay the launch of the election campaign,” and the lawmakers also approved a decision to hold the elections on March 31 next year.

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