Fresh Russia - Ukraine Tensions: Boats Fired Upon, Kerch Strait Blockaded
Ukrainian and Russian naval vessels face off in the Kerch Strait (Photo: Liveumap)

Tensions have erupted between Russia and Ukraine after Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels off the Crimean Peninsula. The crisis began when Russia accused Ukraine of sending its naval ships illegally into its waters.

The Russians then placed a large cargo ship under the bridge in the Kerch Strait – to blockade the only access to the Sea of Azov, which is shared between the two countries.

But Ukraine and Russia offered conflicting accounts of the incident at sea.

The crisis unfolded according to the  Ukrainian Navy as its Berdyansk and Nikopol gunboats, and the Yana Kapa tug, tried to sail from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov.

According to the Ukrainian navy, six sailors were injured when the Russian ship resorted to unprovoked firing on Ukraine's vessels near the strait. "Small armoured vessels, the Beryansk and the Nicopol, have been damaged by enemy fire and can't move," the Navy said in a Facebook post.

"The Yany Kapu tugboat has also been forced to halt. The ships have been seized by Russian special forces," it added.

Russia scrambled two fighter jets and two helicopters as it accused the Ukrainian navy ships of illegally entering its waters and said the traffic had been suspended for security reasons.

Both countries have the right to use the sea, but following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow controls both sides of the strait.

Following this naval skirmish, Russia accused Ukraine of "provocative actions" by not informing it in advance of the journey. Moscow alleged that Ukrainian ships had been manoeuvring dangerously and ignoring its instructions with the aim of stirring up tensions.

A statement released by Ukraine's foreign ministry denied the allegations. "Russia's provocative actions in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have crossed the line and become aggressive," the statement said. "Russian ships have violated our freedom of maritime navigation and unlawfully used force against Ukrainian naval ships."

In a statement late on Sunday, NATO said it was closely monitoring developments and called for restraint and de-escalation. "NATO fully supports Ukraine's sovereignty and its territorial integrity, including its navigational rights in its territorial waters. We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law."