Tensions between Moscow and Kiev have escalated after Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels and their crews in the Kerch strait separating Crimea from the Russian mainland.
The Russian foreign ministry accused Kiev of coordinating with the US and the EU in a “planned provocation” aimed at securing further anti-Moscow sanctions as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, asked parliament to impose martial law.
The UN security council held an emergency session on the crisis on Monday but could not even agree on the agenda. A Russian agenda phrased in a way that implied Ukrainian culpability was voted down, so the Russian deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, refused to take part in the scheduled debate which followed.
Polyanskiy portrayed the incident as a long-planned provocation by Poroshenko and his western backers to distract from the Ukrainian president’s unpopularity in the run-up to elections scheduled for next March. “[The declaration of martial law] is about cancelling the elections,” he said.
The Ukrainian ships had “illegally crossed Russia’s border”, he said, and “responsibility lies with those who gave the illegal order” for the ships to cross the Kerch strait.
Kiev said the two small Ukrainian armoured artillery vessels and a tugboat, heading to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov on Sunday, were observing international maritime rules. Moscow said it had not been notified in advance of the flotilla’s passage and the boats ignored warnings to stop.
But the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, was critical of Russia. She told the council: “This is no way for a law-abiding civilised nation to act. 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.”
Poroshenko signed a bill to impose martial law for 60 days, allowing troops to be mobilised, the country’s air defences to be readied and anti-terrorism measures to be reinforced. Parliament was to vote on the bill later on Monday.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said the captured sailors should be treated as prisoners of war. “These were planned acts of aggression,” he said. “We will demand [at the security council] the immediate release of our sailors and the liberation of our ships.”
In a statement accusing Ukraine of deliberately provoking the incident to provide a pretext for further anti-Russian sanctions, the foreign ministry in Moscow said Russia would respond harshly to any attempts to undermine its sovereignty and security.
“The Russian side acted strictly within both domestic and international law,” said the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, during a daily press briefing, adding that Moscow had opened a criminal case “in connection to the violation of Russia’s borders”. He gave no details on the fate of the Ukrainian sailors held by Moscow.
If Ukraine’s parliament approves Poroshenko’s demand, presidential elections due in four months’ time – and which he is widely expected to lose – could be postponed, prompting some observers to ask whether Poroshenko was trying to exploit the incident.
Dozens of far-right activists protested against the Russian activity in front of Poroshenko’s office in Kiev and outside the Russian consulate in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Monday.
Nato said its ambassadors and Ukraine’s envoy would hold emergency talks in Brussels on Monday at Poroshenko’s request after he had spoken to the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg had expressed Nato’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law”, the military alliance said.
It called for “restraint and de-escalation” and demanded Russia “ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea in accordance with international law”.
Senior officials from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France are meeting in Berlin on Monday for previously scheduled talks on the broader situation in Ukraine and will seek a “collective solution” to the latest clash.
Russia-Ukraine relations have been severely strained since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its support for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In May, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, opened a $3.69bn (£2.9bn) bridge over the Kerch strait that links the Russian mainland and the peninsula.
In Berlin, a spokesman for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, urged both sides to open a dialogue quickly, saying the incident raised “serious questions, above all regarding the use of military force by Russian forces for which, on the basis of the facts known to us so far, no justification is apparent”.
A spokesman for the British prime minister, Theresa May, said the UK condemned Russia’s “act of aggression”, while the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, tweeted that the incident showed Russian “contempt for international norms and Ukrainian sovereignty”.
The French government, which has never recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, expressed “extreme concern” at the worsening situation, saying the seizure of the ships and their crew was unjustified and urging their immediate release.
The EU said 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”, while the Danish foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, said Copenhagen gave its full support to Ukraine. “The development is very disturbing and can escalate,” he said.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House or the US state department.
Turkey stressed that as a country sharing a Black Sea coast, “passage through the Kerch strait should not be blocked” and called for an avoidance of any actions likely to endanger stability and peace in the region.
Observers said the incident could lead to a fresh round of sanctions by the US and Europe against Moscow. “Western governments will side with Ukraine against Russia over the incident … making new sanctions against Russia likely,” the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said.