Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov in contradiction to signed treaties and the Law of the Sea show that Russia cannot be counted on to keep its word, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said at the Pentagon today.
The secretary spoke to reporters while awaiting the arrival of Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis for a meeting.
Over the weekend, Russia barred the Kerch Strait at the mouth of the Sea of Azov off the Crimean Peninsula. Russian sailors opened fire and wounded at least three Ukrainian sailors in the seizure of two armored naval vessels and a tugboat.
Mattis noted that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has condemned the action on behalf of the 29 NATO allies and called for “calm and restraint.” The NATO official also called for Russia to release the ships and sailors immediately.
“It was obviously a flagrant violation of international law, it was I think a cavalier use force that injured Ukrainian sailors,” Mattis told reporters. “It was contempt, really, for the traditional ways of settling these kinds of concerns if they had any. When you think there is a treaty between the two countries that prohibits exactly what happened, it just shows that Russia cannot be counted on now to keep its word.”
During a Nov. 26 news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Stoltenberg said the alliance members “expressed their full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
“We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports and allow freedom of navigation for Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait,” he added. The secretary general’s statement came after an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
The incident is the latest escalation in the war between Russia and Ukraine that started when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. NATO’s position since the annexation has been consistent: The United States and all NATO allies condemned Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said Russia must end its support to militant groups in eastern Ukraine and withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory.
The escalation is the latest in Russia’s ongoing militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. “The Russian move poses further threats to Ukraine’s independence and undermines the stability of the broader region,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO provides support to Ukraine and its people. The United States and the other NATO allies sanctioned Russia for its moves.