MERKEL AND MACRON TELL PUTIN TO PULL HIS FORCES BACK AS UKRAINIAN NAVY THREATENS TO SHOOT RUSSIAN FSB BOATS HARASSING SHIPS NEAR THE KERCH STRAIT
By Will Stewart and Chris Pleasance
16 April 2021
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have told Vladimir Putin to pull his forces back after the Ukrainian navy threatened to shoot Russian FSB boats harassing Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait.
The European leaders’ demands came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a summit with his Russian counterpart and a new ceasefire.
French President Macron hosted Zelensky for talks in Paris – later joined by German Chancellor Merkel by video conference – in a show of support for his pro-Western government in the face of Moscow’s assertive stance.
The tensions have escalated seven years after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea by Moscow and declaration of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists prompted the worst decline in ties between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Putin and Zelensky last met face-to-face in Paris in December 2019 at a meeting hosted by Macron, and also attended by Merkel, which was credited with helping to reduce tensions in subsequent months.
The standoff took place between three Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class artillery boats and five unidentified vessels belonging to Russia’s FSB coast guard service overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, according to Black Sea News editor Andrii Klymenko who monitors military activity in the area.
Russian vessels began making ‘provocative manoeuvres’ around the Ukrainian boats and only backed off after the Ukrainians threatened to open fire, Mr Klymenko reported. The incident happened within 25 miles of the Kerch Strait.
It comes amid a massive buildup of Russian troops along the border that observers fear could top 115,000 by Monday, sparking fears of an invasion amid calls from Joe Biden, NATO and European leaders to ‘de-escalate’.
The Kerch incident has echoes of a 2018 clash between Ukraine and Russia in the strait, which led to three Ukrainian ships being captured and Russia blocking the strait using a container ship, sparking a diplomatic crisis.
Just hours after the latest incident took place, Russia announced a blockade of waters near the strait, but denied that it would affect the strait itself, which it said remains open.
The Ukrainian vessels were taking part in a routine patrol when they were confronted by the Russian coast guard
“From 21:00 on April 24 until 21:00 on October 31, passage through the territorial sea of the Russian Federation for foreign military ships and other state vessels will be halted,” the defence ministry said, without explaining further.
The restrictions will affect the western tip of Crimea, the peninsula’s southern coastline from Sevastopol to Hurzuf, and a ‘rectangle’ off the Kerch peninsula near the Opuksky Nature Reserve, the ministry said.
It came after Joe Biden slapped sanctions on Moscow for what he said were Russian attempts to interfere in US elections and a large hack of US government data.
Putin is now weighing on how to respond, the Kremlin said today.
Following the summit, Zelensky said Macron had offered him support and that he was ‘hopeful’ of four-way peace talks including Putin – saying he is ready to speak with the Russian president.
He said that a meeting between Biden and Putin could help to resolve some issues, but added that it would not make sense for the two to have substantive conversations about the security of his country without him being present.
He added that the trio had discussed Ukraine’s membership of NATO, but did not say whether the alliance is any closer to welcoming the country as a member – a move that would be seen by Putin as a provocation.
Zelensky’s meeting with the leaders of France and Germany, who have been mediators in the conflict since 2015, comes as Ukraine accuses Russia of threatening to destroy it.
“They are openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a press conference with counterparts from the fellow former Soviet countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer,” he warned.
But in a sign that tensions might be easing today, Putin’s spokesman said there had been less fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east – which is one of the pretexts for the build-up of Russia’s forces.
But, Peskov added, Moscow will not lower its guard yet and will continue monitoring the situation closely.
Meanwhile Britain’s ambassador to Moscow arrived at the Russian foreign ministry for talks on Friday after London summoned the Russian ambassador, the RIA news agency reported, amid a further deterioration in bilateral ties.
Britain’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it had summoned Russia’s envoy to express its concern about ‘malign behaviour’ by Moscow and to show London’s support for sanctions announced earlier in the day by Biden.
It comes as Ukraine has warned that it could unilaterally build a nuclear arsenal if NATO refuses to permit it membership of the Western military alliance.