Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin accused Russia on Tuesday of planning to “dismember” his country, beginning with the conquest of vital port cities along the Sea of Azov. Klimkin implied Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships this weekend was a sign the Russians are preparing to implement their dismemberment strategy.
“It doesn’t take to be [sic] James Bond or some kind of super intel guy to understand that Russia eyes both Mariupol and the entire coastline,” Klimkin said in a televised panel discussion on Tuesday.
“In terms of military and non-military actions, Russia has plans for the whole southern Ukraine down to Transnistria, as well as for dismembering Ukraine,” he said.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Klimkin on Monday explaining how the naval conflict on Sunday in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, figures into Russia’s dismemberment strategy:
.@PavloKlimkin: "Actions in the #KerchStrait indicate the creation of prerequisites for the complete blockade of the seaports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, as well as the preparation for a possible full blockade of the #BlackSea coast of #Ukraine by #Russia".#RussiaAttacksUkraine pic.twitter.com/uJjjbDf735
— MFA of Ukraine 🇺 (@MFA_Ukraine) November 26, 2018
The Ukrainian military on Tuesday posted a recording of communications between the Russian coast guard ships involved in the Kerch Strait incident and their commanders. A key passage in the profanity-laden intercept found the commander of the Russian ship that rammed one of the Ukrainian vessels eagerly requesting permission to ram the other Ukrainians to stop them from passing through the strait.
“There’s an order from the border guard service to f**k them up by ramming them, to f**king damage everything,” a superior officer presumably broadcasting from ashore replied.
Another officer who joined the conversation asked for a situation report to relay to Moscow. The exchange that followed was heated – the Russian captain really wanted to ram more Ukrainian boats – and eventually included someone yelling, “We must f**k them up! We have to f**king finish them. Medvedev is already yelling in such a panic. It seems that the president is already in control of this s**t.”
Dmitry Medvedev is the prime minister of Russia. The Ukrainians reasonably assumed the “president” referred to in the intercept is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev appears to have mastered his panic, since he gave a press conference on Tuesday accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of provoking the Kerch Strait incident to “achieve certain decisions politically advantageous for the incumbent president.” In other words, he accused Poroshenko of engineering a crisis so he could impose martial law and cancel a March election he would probably lose.
Medvedev also predicted the incident “may create serious problems for Ukraine’s economy,” which would fit into Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin’s theory of a Russian strategy to weaken Ukraine and make its port cities vulnerable.
Pursuant to Klimkin’s point about the Russians looking for an excuse to take more aggressive action against Ukraine, this is how Russia’s Tass news service described the encounter in the Kerch Strait in its article about Medvedev’s press conference:
The Ukrainian ships did not respond to the legitimate demands coming from the vessels of the Border Service of the Russian Security Service (FSB) and the Black Sea Fleet that had pursued them in order to stop them immediately and thwart their dangerous maneuvers.
Because of their blatant refusal to submit to the order, gunfire had to be used to stop the intruding Ukrainian ships. Three Ukrainian servicemen were lightly injured and later received medical treatment. In addition, the ships were detained. A criminal case was launched into the breach of the Russian state border.
In a separate report, Tass made much of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Vasily Gritsak admitting two SBU counter-intelligence agents were aboard one of the ships seized by Russia on Sunday.
“The officers of the Ukrainian intelligence service were performing combat tasks of the counter-intelligence support department of the Ukrainian Navy, as stipulated in Article 12 of the Ukrainian law ‘On the Ukrainian Security Service,” Gritsak said.
These intelligence officers are presumably among the 24 Ukrainians detained by Russia when their ships were captured at sea. The Ukrainian military on Tuesday accused the Russians of using “pressure or torture” to produce forced confession videos from three captive Ukrainian sailors, one from each ship.
In the videos, two of the sailors claim their ships ignored orders from the Russians to stay out of the Kerch Strait. If valid, this confession would not validate Russia’s take on the incident, since Ukraine and most of the international community do not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and would therefore not recognize its authority to close the strait.
One of the Ukrainian prisoners further stated he was aware of the “provocative nature” of the actions taken by his ship. According to the BBC, one of the other captive Ukrainians featured in the videos released by the Russian FSB is an employee of Ukraine’s security service, possibly one of the SBU counter-intelligence officers mentioned by SBU chief Vasily Gritsak.
A Russian court in occupied Crimea on Tuesday ordered four of the captured Ukrainian sailors jailed for at least two months, signaling Russia’s defiance of international demands for the release of the sailors and their ships. The four were charged with “illegal border crossing by a group of individuals acting in collusion, or by an organized group, or with the use of or the threat to use violence.” One of the jailed men is Volodymyr Varemez, captain of the tugboat that was rammed by a Russian ship during the attack on Sunday.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday condemned Russia’s “dangerous escalation” and “violation of international law” in the Kerch Strait and called on Moscow to release the Ukrainian ships and crew.
The Ukrainian parliament voted on Monday to approve President Poroshenko’s decree for 30 days of martial law. The measure indicated martial law would include strengthening Ukraine’s defenses against air strikes and terrorist attacks, as well as reinforcing “information security.” Units of Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation were placed on “full alert” on Tuesday.