Russia Reopens Kerch Strait After Standoff with Ukraine

Russia reopened the Kerch Strait near Crimea to shipping in the early hours of Monday morning after firing on and seizing three Ukrainian naval ships a day earlier, Reuters reported.

Russian FSB security service said early on Monday its border patrol boats had seized two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors, in what has been the most serious clash between Moscow and Kiev in years.

Russia had previously blocked the Kerch Strait near Russia-annexed Crimea to stop the ships from passing from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, saying the small flotilla had not notified it of its plans in advance and ignored warnings to stop while maneuvering dangerously.

Ukrainian lawmakers will vote on whether to declare martial law, following a proposal by the country’s President Petro Poroshenko, while an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting has been called for Monday to discuss the issue, CNN adds.

With relations still raw after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the incident risks pushing the two countries toward a wider conflict and is likely to renew Western calls for more sanctions on Moscow.

The Russian rouble opened 0.4 percent weaker against the dollar in Moscow, its lowest since mid-November. Kiev, which denied its ships had done anything wrong, accused Russia of military aggression and asked for the international community to mobilize to punish Russia.

The European Union said in a statement it expected Russia to restore freedom of passage via the Kerch Strait and urged both sides to act with the utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation. A NATO spokeswoman issued a similar appeal to both sides.

A Reuters witness said the three Ukrainian naval vessels seized by Russia were being held at the Crimean port of Kerch. People in naval-style uniforms could be seen around the vessels, which bore no sign of damage, the witness said.

A bilateral treaty gives both Russia and Ukraine the right to use the Sea of Azov, which lies between them and is linked by the narrow Kerch Strait to the Black Sea, Reuters explains.

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