Brussels: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Monday demanded Russia free Ukrainian ships and sailors held after clashes off Crimea, warning Moscow that “its actions have consequences”.
Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships on Sunday, accusing them of illegally entering its waters in the Sea of Azov, in a dramatic spike in tensions that raises fears of a wider escalation.
Stoltenberg held phone talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before officials from the two sides held emergency talks at alliance headquarters in Brussels.
“There is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel, so we call on Russia to release immediately the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized yesterday,” Stoltenberg told reporters after the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
“And we call for calm and restraint.”
Kiev accused Russia of launching “a new phase of aggression”, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The Ukrainian military has been put on high alert and the country’s parliament is to vote on a request by Poroshenko to impose martial law for 60 days.
Ukraine has also urged its Western allies to step up existing sanctions implemented against Russia over Crimea and its role in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and pro-Moscow separatists.
Stoltenberg said the 29 NATO allies reiterated their support for Ukrainian sovereignty, saying they would never recognise Russia’s claim to Crimea.
“Russia has to understand that its actions have consequences — that’s the reason why NATO has reacted so firmly against the actions of Russia against Ukraine over several years,” the former Norwegian premier said, without giving details of possible consequences but pointing to economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia.
Stoltenberg said Poroshenko had assured him that the proposed martial law would not interfere with upcoming presidential elections planned for March 31.
Moscow has blamed Kiev for the incident, drawing a barbed response on Twitter from the US Special Envoy for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker.
“Russia rams Ukrainian vessel peacefully travelling toward a Ukrainian port. Russia seizes ships and crew and then accuses Ukraine of provocation???” Volker tweeted.
Tensions have been building over the Kerch Strait, where Russia has built a new bridge that gives it a land connection to Crimea.
Kiev has accused Moscow of blocking access for Ukrainian ships though the strait, the only way in and out of the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.