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Tensions Rise Between Ukraine And Russia Following Naval Clash


The Ukrainian government has declared martial law and put its armed forces on alert. This comes after yesterday's clash between Ukrainian and Russian naval ships. And at the U.N., European members of the Security Council demanded that Russia allow free navigation and release the captured Ukrainian vessels and their sailors. NPR's Lucian Kim has the latest from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: There's little debate about what happened Sunday when three Ukrainian naval vessels attempted to pass through a narrow bottleneck separating the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In a video filmed aboard a Russian coast guard ship, crewmembers can be heard cursing before ramming a Ukrainian tugboat.


KIM: Neither side denies that later the Russian coast guard opened fire to stop the other two Ukrainian vessels and seized all three of them together with their crews. Ukraine says six seamen were injured, and the Kremlin accused Ukraine of committing a dangerous provocation.


DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told state TV that foreign military vessels had entered Russian territorial waters and needed to be stopped. Ukraine for its part says its boats were simply traveling from one Ukrainian port to another when they were attacked for no reason.



KIM: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russian aggression against his country had reached a new level. The vastly different interpretations of what happened have their roots in Russia's armed seizure of Crimea in 2014. That's when the Kremlin gained de facto control of both sides of the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, two bodies of water Ukraine shares with Russia. Practically no country recognizes the Russian annexation, leaving Kiev and Moscow at loggerheads over access to disputed waters.


POROSHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: In a speech, Ukraine's president said he wants to impose martial law for 30 days because of the threat of a Russian land invasion.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Ukrainian).

KIM: That led to a noisy debate in the Ukrainian parliament. Poroshenko's opponents say he is trying to use the war to boost his sagging popularity before a March election. But the narrative of a new Ukrainian provocation also helps Putin. Russians' trust in their president, according to a recent poll, has dropped by 20 percent in the last year. Poroshenko spent the day rallying support by calling the leaders of NATO, the European Union, Germany and Poland. However, the Trump administration didn't react until Ambassador Nikki Haley took the floor during an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.


NIKKI HALEY: Sunday's outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior stoking conflict that has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

KIM: Russian state TV suggested the naval incident may have been intended to scuttle a planned meeting between President Trump and Putin in Argentina at the end of the week. But the Kremlin says preparations for the talks are still on track. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.