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A maritime confrontation between Ukraine and Russia has launched an unpredictable phase in their conflict. After a Russian ship rammed a Ukrainian tugboat and fired upon its sailors, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the actions “a dangerous escalation,” and the head of NATO said there was "no justification" for Russia's aggression. John Yang reports on the political implications of the clash.
A confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian vessels on the high seas has launched a new and unpredictable phase in their conflict.
Late today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Russia's actions, saying they represent — quote — "a dangerous escalation."
John Yang has the story.
From above, what appears to be a naval battle. Up close, Russian ships close in on a Ukrainian tugboat headed for a nearby port. The video released by Russia's government then shows one Russian ship ramming the tugboat, cutting it off from two Ukrainian gunboats.
The Ukrainian navy said six of its sailors were wounded when the Russian Coast Guard later opened fire and then seized all three ships and the Ukrainian crews.
The Ukrainian vessels were sailing through the Kerch Strait off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. The aggression was a new flash point in a nearly five-year-old crisis. Ongoing fighting between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops in Eastern Ukraine has claimed some 10,000 lives.
Today, Russia's government said the Ukrainians illegally entered the strait, and then ignored warning shots.
Dmitry Peskov (through translator):
It is a very dangerous provocation, so it requires special attention and special proceedings.
Both countries regularly use the strait under a 2003 agreement. Ukraine says it gave advance notice of the ship movement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said earlier today he had asked Parliament for a 30-day period of martial law beginning this week.
Petro Poroshenko (through translator):
By attacking Ukrainian military boats, it moved onto a new stage of aggression.
Ukraine's Parliament quickly approved, giving Poroshenko wide-ranging powers to seize assets, liberate occupied Ukrainian territory, and control the media. Poroshenko said he would only use the authority in and regions he claims are under Russian threat.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would stand firmly behind non-member Ukraine.
There is no justification for use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel.
President Trump weighed in as he left the White House.
President Donald Trump:
We don't like what's happening. And, hopefully, it will get straightened out. I know Europe is not — they are not thrilled. They're working on it too. We're all working on it together.
At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned reckless Russian aggression.
Russia's envoy said the United States and NATO were giving cover for Poroshenko to boost his poor poll numbers before next year's presidential election.
Dmitry Polyanskiy (through translator):
How can he maintain power in these circumstances? It's clear. Organize provocation and once again accuse Russia of everything and put himself forward as the savior of the nation.
Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, is facing a very, very difficult reelection.
Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
And there's a real question as to whether he can succeed in the elections. So he may be looking for any opportunity he can now to remind Ukrainian voters of the one big advantage that he has, which is that he is the defender of the country.
Rojansky said Russian President Vladimir Putin, also losing popularity at home, is using the incident to his advantage as well.
The more the conflict in Ukraine creates chaos in the European security theater, chaos between Europe and the United States, chaos between Ukraine and the wider West, including NATO and the E.U., and chaos in American politics, these are all to Putin's advantage, right, because he plays on that chaos.
In Kiev today, right-wing activists and militia members called for Ukraine's government to do more to deter Russian aggression, and Poroshenko assured that his martial law decree didn't include postponing next year's elections slated or a declaration of war, for now.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.
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