This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Ukraine has used a gathering of foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to call for increased sanctions against Russia, accusing Moscow of stepping up “aggression” against Kyiv and sowing “instability and insecurity” in the OSCE region.
“It is a matter of urgency to provide a prompt and consolidated international response,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told the OSCE meeting in Milan, Italy, on December 6, amid heightened tensions between Kyiv and Moscow following a naval confrontation in the Black Sea last month.
“Declarations are not enough. There must be action,” Klimkin also said, while U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell said Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula have caused “Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis in a generation.”
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pinned the blame for years of tensions on Ukraine’s “outrageous actions” and its “Western sponsors.”
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its support for separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
The situation escalated on November 25 when Russia fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels that were attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea, and ultimately seized the ships and 24 crewmen, who remain in Russian captivity.
In his speech at the OSCE ministerial meeting, Klimkin said, “This year, Russia did not pull back but extended its aggressive course of action.”
“The scope of Russia is clear: gross and uncorrected violations of the OSCE principles and commitments. It is massive and continues to grow,” he also said. “What does it mean for all of us in the OSCE? It means instability and insecurity.”
Ukraine and Russia are both member states of the 57-nation OSCE, a security and human rights watchdog.
The minister reiterated his country’s call for the “immediate release and safe return to Ukraine” of the sailors, a demand voiced by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who also urged the “greatest moderation to proceed toward a deescalation” of the conflict.
Meanwhile, U.S., Canadian, and a number of European ministers denounced Moscow’s actions and voiced support for Kyiv.
Mitchell, who headed the U.S. delegation at the meeting, emphasized again that OSCE member states “cannot turn a blind eye when Russia attacks the national sovereignty and borders of its neighbors… undermines basic human freedoms, and weakens our common security.”
“In the past four years, Russia has precipitated Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis in a generation,” he said, citing the casualty toll of the war in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainians who have been “imprisoned, tortured, and killed,” and the prosecution of “Crimean Tatars and others who resist Russian rule.”
“Russia’s destabilizing actions have prompted NATO allies to enhance their deterrence and defense posture,” Mitchell also noted.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea, its direct involvement in the conflict in [eastern Ukraine], and now its illegal actions targeting Ukrainian sailors and vessels…cannot and must not be accepted by the international community.”
Moscow has accused Kyiv of orchestrating the clash at sea, saying the Ukrainian boats had entered Russian waters — something Kyiv denies.
Addressing the OSCE gathering, Lavrov asserted that Kyiv is “free from any punishment, shielded by its Western sponsors, who justify all its outrageous actions.”
“Striving for dominance, a small group of countries uses blackmail, pressure, and threats,” the Russian foreign minister also said.
Lavrov blasted the “reckless” enlargement of NATO over the past years, the deployment of U.S. antiaircraft defense systems in Europe, and the imposition of “illegitimate sanctions under false pretexts.”
Ukraine has responded to the November 25 confrontation by introducing martial law in parts of the country for 30 days.
On December 6, President Petro Poroshenko visited an air base in the city of Zhytomyr where troops were preparing to leave for the border with Russia in order to “strengthen our defense capabilities and be ready to stop the aggressor without losing a second.”
In Kyiv, Ukrainian lawmakers voted to terminate the country’s Treaty of Friendship with Russia and adopted a bill that officials said will allow the coast guard and the navy to be more efficient in preventing military threats and smuggling along country’s territorial waters.
The legislation also allows Ukrainian border guards to open fire without warning on potential attackers.