The Russian Federal Security Service posted a video Tuesday of three captured Ukrainian navy sailors stating that their boat was dispatched to provoke a violent clash with Russian coast guard vessels in the waters off Crimea on Sunday.
Ukrainian officials later accused Russia of using “psychological and physical pressure” on the crew members, and one of them appeared to be reading from an off-camera script in the FSB video.
“I recognize that the actions of the Ukrainian naval grouping were provocative,” a sailor identifying himself as Capt. 3rd Rank Vladimir Lisovoi said to the camera. Lisovoi spoke quickly, with eyes focused off to the side. He also said the group deliberately ignored radio calls from the Russian coast guard.
The three Ukrainian naval vessels — two gunboats and an accompanying tug — were fired on by Russian coast guard vessels near the entrance to the Kerch Strait, a waterway nestled between the Crimea peninsula and the Russian mainland that leads into the Sea of Azov. Russia said the movement violated its territorial waters and seized the vessels, detaining 24 crew members.
The incident has inflamed tensions between Ukraine and Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainian government officials in Kiev contend that Russian authorities were notified that the three boats intended to transit the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has naval ports. Russia maintains that no such notification was issued, and that the boats maneuvered recklessly.
The Ukrainian vessels have been taken to Kerch, a city on the Crimean coast, and the crews are being prosecuted in Russian courts there. Russia has claimed that Ukrainian intelligence officers were aboard, and one of these alleged officers — identifying himself as Andrei Dach — said in the video Tuesday that “we entered Russian territorial waters” despite repeated warnings.
Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, later confirmed that it had men aboard the boats but said they were there only to perform counterintelligence duties for the Ukrainian navy.
The fate of the 24 men captured by the Russians remains in question. The Ukrainian foreign minister told the Interfax-Ukraine news service that Kiev was working through the International Red Cross to get access to its men and ensure they receive proper medical treatment. Six of the sailors were reportedly wounded by Russian fire during the engagement Sunday.
Pretrial hearings were held for 12 of the sailors Tuesday in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, and at least three of them were ordered detained for two months pending trial on charges of illegally crossing Russian borders — which carries a maximum sentence of six years. Rulings on the detention of the remaining sailors are expected Wednesday.
Kiev has argued the men are prisoners of war, which would preclude them from criminal charges such as those three of them now face.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, martial law has been declared across 10 regions that authorities have deemed at risk of Russian aggression. In a national address Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that his intelligence service has evidence of Russian preparations for a massive ground assault on Ukraine. He did not share any evidence publicly.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Kiev’s imposition of martial law risks sparking hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have been battling Russian-backed separatists there since 2014, but a frequently violated cease-fire agreement in 2015 has limited the fighting.
In Europe, several countries issued statements highlighting deep concern over the situation. NATO has condemned Russia and called for the release of the boats and sailors.
Russia’s handling of the incident has sparked fears that Moscow may be moving to claim total control over the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.
The strait and the sea beyond it are formally governed by a 2003 bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine declaring these areas to be shared internal waters. But since annexing Crimea, Moscow has been asserting ever greater control over the Kerch Strait. In May, Russia completed a $3.7-billion bridge crossing the strait to connect Crimea to Russia.
Ukraine’s navy is greatly outmatched by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and other military assets in the region, leaving Kiev with few good options. According to Michael Kofman, an analyst at the Virginia-based CNA think tank specializing in the Russian navy, Ukraine may receive a few token weapons packages from Western supporters, but it will not change the situation.
“Russia is trying to establish itself as the de facto sovereign of the Kerch Strait,” Kofman said, “thereby forcing Ukraine to submit to its authority on passage into the Sea of Azov. The attack was meant to demonstrate both the fact that Russia is the dominant military power in the Black Sea, but also that it now claims sovereignty over the strait and won’t abide by prior agreements.”