Ukraine Threatens to Escalate Russia Standoff After Ship Detentions

By Thomas Grove (Wall Street Journal)

Nov. 30, 2018 7:46 a.m. ET


Any action by Kiev to detain Russian ships would likely end in an armed confrontation, in which Moscow would have a major advantage

MOSCOW—Ukraine threatened to escalate tensions with Russia on Friday, with a top security official in Kiev saying authorities could respond in kind to the detention of three Ukrainian naval ships over the weekend.

The detentions have drawn international condemnation. President Trump cited them as the reason he canceled a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this week.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman called the cancellation regrettable but said it would give the Russian president time to focus on other meetings.

Kiev’s threat is its latest step since it put Ukrainian armed forces on full military alert and declared a state of emergency earlier this week.

“The decision is being made on whether or not to take corresponding reciprocal measures as our country’s response to the Russian aggressor,” Ihor Huskov, a top official at the Security Service of Ukraine, said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Any action by Kiev to detain Russian ships would likely end in an armed confrontation, in which Moscow, buoyed by billions of dollars in recent military spending, would hold a significant advantage.

The confrontation started Sunday when Russia shot at three ships in the waters near Crimea and detained 24 crew members.

Tensions between Kiev and Moscow are now at their highest since the 2014 crisis when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and supported an armed insurrection in the country’s east. The detentions continue a pattern of attempts by Russia to squeeze the Ukrainian economy, cutting it off from an economically important waterway that runs between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

The West has heaped political pressure on Russia in recent days to release the ships and crew. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said earlier in the week that Moscow must guarantee Ukraine free access to its waters and warned that its actions would have consequences.

The Kremlin says the Ukrainian ships were making dangerous maneuvers in Russia’s territorial waters. Moscow is prosecuting the sailors on charges that they violated Russia’s borders.

The ships’ crew, which includes officers and two members of Ukraine’s state security agency, have been transferred from a high-security prison in Crimea to Moscow, Russian agencies reported.

Kiev is doing everything possible to get the soldiers back, said Mr. Huskov.

Ties between Ukraine and Russia soured in 2014 after pro-European protesters toppled a president close to the Kremlin. Kiev has since charted a pro-Western course and on Friday, the European Commission approved the disbursal of $500 million dollars in aid crucial for the country’s struggling economy.

Russia sees Ukraine’s economy, which Kiev authorities have failed to reform, as one of its biggest weak spots, and attempts to blockade Ukraine’s key waterways have hurt the country’s industrial east.

Kiev has taken other actions since Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko introduced martial law, saying this would help the military react more quickly to any other aggression from Russia. On Friday, Mr. Poroshenko said all Russian men aged between 16 and 69 years old were barred from traveling to Ukraine to prevent private armies loyal to Moscow forming on its soil.

Ukraine has cracked down on Russian men entering the country since 2014, as many who fought in the country’s conflict in eastern Ukraine were Russian citizens.

Ukrainian authorities are searching the home of the father superior of Kiev’s biggest and oldest monastery, Mr. Huskov said, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church. The move comes as Ukraine strives to create an autocephalous church, independent of Moscow, in an attempt to cut ties with Russia as much as possible.

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