Russia-Ukraine Sea Encounter Highlights Jittery Nerves in the Region

KIEV, Ukraine – It’s a sign of escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine that for a few hours this week, a ramshackle half-century-old Ukrainian naval vessel, looked as if they could lead to a worrying military escalation.

Ukrainian officials said the ship was unarmed and took part in a minor exercise on Thursday in a small but strategic waterway bordered by Ukraine to the west and Russia to the east. It seemed to be a prime example of the decline of the Ukrainian Navy, although it was possible that Ukraine, too, might have been trying to cross the border and provoke Russia.

In both cases, the confrontation was quickly seized by Russian security services and state media, describing it as an imminent threat.

Russia’s domestic spy service, the FSB, announced late in the evening that it had intercepted the ship for non-compliance with orders. This sparked propaganda from the Kremlin, who used the move as a prelude to war. Russia’s state TV station RT has started a live broadcast on YouTube under the title “Ukrainian Stimulus”, in which a military analyst suggested that the ship should burst out of the water.

“This is the provocation that everyone has been waiting for,” wrote Andrei Medvedev, a contributor to RT.

In the end this was not the case, as the ship returned to port without incident.

The pierced ship may not yet be enough to provoke a full-fledged Russian attack. But with Moscow massing nearly 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, along with tanks, fighter jets and ballistic missiles, people on all sides of the conflict are feeling disoriented.

The brief escalation not only highlights the risks inherent in the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, but also indicates that the situation remains volatile even after this week’s video call between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. escalation of tensions.

Mr. Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine is becoming increasingly ominous. Ukrainian forces are organized along 250 miles of trenches and fortifications that regularly explode with machine-gun and artillery fire as they confront separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Experts said much is moving toward diplomatic efforts in the coming days and weeks.

“I think the situation is clearly tense, but it’s not like we’re ready to go,” said Eugene Romer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Romer raised the possibility that once Russia made a decision to invade, it could use a simple incident as justification.

“If Putin realizes that this conversation with Biden is not going anywhere, that he’s not getting what he wants, and that this is hopeless, then I can imagine that a drone incident or someone’s missile could provide an excuse to pull the trigger,” He said.

Indeed, the FSB’s decision to intercept a seemingly innocuous ship, along with the angry reaction from Kremlin advocates, alarmed Ukrainian and Western officials, who feared it served as a model for how the Kremlin could use a contrived pretext for an invasion.

Ukrainian observers said they found the timing of the FSB announcement suspicious. It was published as the government released details of a phone call between Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and President Biden.

in a Statement on TwitterThe US Embassy in Kiev gave an unusually sharp response, saying the Ukrainian ship had done nothing illegal and accusing the Russian government of deliberately causing controversy.

“Russia’s false allegations are part of its ongoing campaign to divert attention from its latest aggressive and provocative actions,” the embassy wrote.

The ship — named Donbass, after the heart of the breakaway region — was intercepted in the Azov Sea near the Kerch Straight, a narrow passage near Russian-occupied Crimea over which Ukraine and Russia have repeatedly clashed. In 2018, Russian forces opened fire on several Ukrainian navy ships and arrested a number of sailors they accused of infiltrating territorial waters claimed by the Kremlin after the annexation of Crimea.

The FSB said the Donbass refused to comply with orders to divert to the Kerch Strait. “These actions represent a threat to the safety of navigation,” the statement said.

According to Ukrainian officials, the ship never came within 18 nautical miles of the disputed waterway.

Ukrainian and Western officials say Russian authorities, including Mr. Putin himself, appear to be reviewing their rationale for the invasion. This month, Anthony J. Blinken, the US secretary of state, has warned that Russia has “intensified disinformation to portray Ukraine as the aggressor to justify pre-planned military action.”

These efforts appear to be continuing even after the video call between Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden.

Defying all evidence to the contrary, Mr Putin on Thursday accused the Ukrainian authorities of committing a “genocide” against the Donbass population. Although civilians in the separatist regions live under the protection of Russian-backed military forces, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT and a top Kremlin propagandist, immediately inflated these claims, indicating that she hopes Russia will come to the rescue of the population. .

“Mother Russia more than once saved millions from various forms of genocide,” she wrote on Telegram.

Of Mr Putin, she said: “I don’t know if he had that on his mind or not, but I certainly hope he does.”

The hostile statements come against the backdrop of continued violence along the so-called Line of Control separating Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. The Ukrainian Army Press Service reported that two Ukrainian service members were injured on Thursday in attacks on front-line positions.

Meanwhile, the build-up of Russian troops on the border shows no sign of abating. The Russian Defense Ministry announced that tank divisions from the Western Military District trained to fire anti-tank missiles similar to the Javelin missiles supplied by the United States and now deployed by Ukrainian forces in the east of the country. The exercises were held at training grounds in the Voronezh region, less than 200 miles from the Russian-Ukrainian border.

The Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery V. In his statement, he specifically referred to Russia’s opposition to Javelin missiles, which Ukrainian forces had not yet used on the battlefield, as well as Turkish-made Bayraktar planes that were used to attack separatist positions.

“Any provocation by the Ukrainian authorities to solve the Donbass problems using force will be suppressed,” he said.

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