Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 20.12.2018
The Russian Federation committed an open act of war when it attacked the Ukrainian Navy. The Russian Federation’s war on Ukraine began on 20 February 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, expanded in April of 2014 with the invasion of Donbas, and it expanded again with the attack on the Ukrainian Navy on 25 November 2018 – making the Sea of Azov a new theatre of Putin’s War.
Looking to its own defence, Ukraine is taking measures to deter and if necessary fight an amphibious assault by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the Ukrainian Sea of Azov coast. Ukraine is building naval facilities and a “mosquito fleet” as part of these preparations.
On 23 September 2018, the Ukrainian Navy sailed two small warships from Odesa to Berdyansk. Although the boats were harassed by the Russians in the Kerch Strait, the transit was successful. Ukraine peacefully asserted freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait and its rights under the 2003 agreement about joint Ukraine-Russian Federation use of the Sea of Azov.
On 25 November 2018, the Ukrainian Navy attempted to sail three small vessels from Odesa to Mariupol. The procedure was identical to the first time: peaceful and legal. But on this second transit the Russians attacked. The attack was unexpected and unprovoked, but it was planned in advance by the Russians and directed personally by Putin from Moscow. In the Kerch Strait, Russian forces rammed the Ukrainian vessels, shot at them from the sea and air, pursued them into international waters of the Black Sea, where they boarded them and captured their crews.
The 24 captured Ukrainian Navy sailors have been spirited away to Moscow, where they are being held in contravention of international law. The Ukrainian captives are being denied their rights as prisoners of war and the International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to them. The Russian Federation is violating the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war by subjecting the Ukrainian sailors to a criminal proceeding, subjecting them to harsh treatment, and subjecting them to public scrutiny. These are all war crimes being committed by the Putin regime.
Ukraine and the rest of the civilized world is demanding the Russian Federation free the prisoners of war. Ukraine is taking the lead in the response of Western democracies to this extreme expansion of Russian aggression in its war against Europe. Ukraine proposes to continue the mission on which the Ukrainian sailors who are now prisoners of war were engaged. The Ukrainian Navy is planning a third sailing of warships from Odesa to a Sea of Azov port. Ukraine is asking for its partners to help, either by having a ship from a NATO member state accompany the Ukrainian vessels or by having NATO and OSCE representatives on board them.
Oleksandr Turchynov is Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine. On Wednesday, December 19 he gave an interview with BBC News Ukraine. He talked about how Ukraine is responding to Russian aggression by looking to its defence in the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian Navy is building naval facilities at Berdyansk and a flotilla of small naval vessels. Since the Russian Federation built the illegal Kerch Strait bridge, imposed an effective maritime blockade on Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, and attacked the Ukrainian Navy on November 25, Ukraine’s preparations to defend itself from an expanded Russian invasion that goes beyond Crimea and Donbas is especially urgent.
Ukraine has invited NATO ships to visit Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. NATO ships already make port visits to Odesa. For example, the Royal Navy ship HMS Echo is in the Black Sea now and has called at Odesa. Secretary Turchynov was asked about the likelihood of NATO ships in the Sea of Azov to help Ukraine. He said: “It would be very logical for NATO ships, which we invite to the ports of the Sea of Azov, to prove that Russia must comply with international law. Our initiative has not received a response yet. However, I hope they will at least send their observers during the next passage of Ukrainian warships through the Kerch Strait.”
The world should keep its attention on the the Russian Federation’s act of war against Ukraine on November 25, in Secretary Turchynov’s view. Especially with the presence of NATO and OSCE representatives on board, the Russian Federation is unlikely to launch another unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels when the third transit from a Ukrainian port to a Ukrainian port through the Kerch Strait is made. This is what Oleksandr Turchynov hopes.
The Russian Federation must free the 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors who are prisoners of war, must release the three captured Ukrainian Navy vessels, and must lift the blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. A successful transit of the Kerch Strait by Ukrainian naval vessels, as was done on September 23, will put the right kind of pressure on the Russians. The right signal will be sent by the presence of NATO and OSCE representatives on board Ukrainian boats: there is no reward coming to the Russian Federation by its purposeful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.