This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is calling on NATO to send ships to the Sea of Azov to help protect Ukraine after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews off Crimea.
In an interview with the German tabloid Bild published early on November 29, Poroshenko said he hoped European states will take active steps, including increasing sanctions and military protection against Russia, to help Ukraine after providing verbal support in the wake of Russia’s capture of 24 Ukrainian sailors over the weekend.
“We hope that NATO states are prepared to send naval ships to the Sea of Azov to support Ukraine and provide security,” Poroshenko said. He claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin saw himself as a “Russian emperor” and Ukraine as a Russian “colony.”
“The only language he [Putin] understands is the solidarity of the Western world,” Poroshenko said. “We can’t accept Russia’s aggressive policies. First it was Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now he wants the Sea of Azov.”
Opening a German-Ukrainian economic forum in Berlin later in the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she planned to press Putin at a Group of 20 (G20) summit later this week to urge the release of the ships and crews.
“We can only resolve this in talks with one another because there is no military solution to all of these conflicts,” she added.
Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on November 29 criticized Poroshenko’s request for NATO to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov, saying it was “aimed at provoking further tensions” and driven by Poroshenko’s “electoral and domestic policy motives.”
Putin has claimed that the naval confrontation was a ploy to boost his Ukrainian counterpart’s popularity ahead of an election in March.
A NATO spokeswoman said the alliance already had a strong presence in the region, with vessels routinely patrolling and exercising in the Black Sea.
“There is already a lot of NATO in the Black Sea, and we will continue to assess our presence in the region,” Oana Lungescu said.
The Sea of Azov is the body of water that separates the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, from the Ukrainian and Russian mainlands. Russia opened a bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea with Russia in May and has asserted control over the strait.
The Kerch Strait is the only route for ships traveling between the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has several ports, and the Black Sea, which is the arena usually patrolled by NATO.
Ukraine is a partner of NATO but not a member of the military alliance. NATO has already said it “stands with Ukraine” and has called on Russia to release the captured ships and their crews.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also warned Russia on November 26 that “its actions have consequences.”
Poroshenko, who on November 28 instituted martial law in parts of Ukraine in response to the Russian actions, told Bild he had evidence suggesting Russia is planning a new ground offensive against Ukraine, and he said he had shown NATO partners satellite pictures supporting that allegation.
“Germany also has to ask itself: What will Putin do next if we don’t stop him?” Poroshenko told Bild.
Russia has been providing support for a separatists in eastern Ukraine who have been fighting the government since 2014 in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people, Kyiv and the West say.
But until the naval confrontation this week, in which Russia fired shots and rammed the captured Ukrainian vessels, injuring six seamen, it had not before engaged directly in battle with Ukraine.
Ukrainian parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy has joined Poroshenko in calling for increased protection from NATO, saying on November 27 that “I urged [NATO] to increase [its presence] in the airspace above the Black Sea and the number of military ships in the Black Sea as a guarantee of security and a guarantee of stability in the Black Sea.”
EU: ‘Utmost Concern,’ But No New Sanctions
Poroshenko’s remarks came as the European Union failed to muster support for any immediate new steps to either impose new sanctions on Russia over the naval incident or increase enforcement of existing sanctions on Moscow.
Poland, Britain, and the EU’s Baltic states have called for more sanctions, but after three days of debate, the EU’s 28 states could agree only to issue a statement on November 28 expressing “utmost concern about the dangerous increase of tensions” and the “unacceptable” use of force by Russia.
The statement issued by EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini did not mention sanctions, saying only that the bloc will “act appropriately” while continuing to monitor the situation.
The bloc’s top powers, Germany and France, have so far emphasized efforts to ease tensions. Other members, including Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, have been calling for a softening of sanctions on Moscow.
The EU first imposed sanctions on Russia after it seized Crimea, and it has ratcheted up those sanctions from time to time. The United States on November 27 called for stricter enforcement of the EU’s existing sanctions on Russian and Crimean officials and businesses.
While the EU failed to take any immediate action against Russia, in a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, Estonia said on November 28 that it had summoned its Russian ambassador and condemned Russia’s use of military force in the incident.