The leaders of Russia and Ukraine fought an escalating war of words on Wednesday, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warning the tense situation could escalate into a war of tanks and bombs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by accusing Poroshenko of engineering the crisis to boost his sagging poll numbers ahead of the March election in Ukraine.
“What happened on November 25th is an extraordinary event that took place for the first time in 4.5 years of Russian aggression. Officially, without tearing off chevrons, without ‘green men,’ Russian troops in large numbers attacked the ships of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said in a televised interview, taking a dig at Russia’s use of unofficial troops sarcastically known as “little green men” to take over the Crimean peninsula without formally launching an invasion.
Poroshenko cited satellite intelligence indicating the number of Russian tanks along the Ukrainian border has “tripled” and “the number of units re-deployed along the entire length of our border has dramatically increased,” a surge he insisted could not be justified as any sort of training exercise. Russian troops and equipment have steadily built up in Crimea as well.
Poroshenko said Russian naval forces are concentrated around the Kerch Strait, where Russia seized three Ukrainian ships over the weekend, backed up with air support, electronic warfare assets, and special forces operators.
“I don’t want anybody to think that it’s a trifle. The country is under the threat of a full-scale war with the Russian Federation,” he concluded. He accused the Russians of attacking Ukrainian ships on Sunday in the hope of provoking their crews into returning fire and giving Moscow an excuse to launch a full military campaign.
Poroshenko blasted the Ukrainian opposition on Wednesday for failing to take the Russian threat seriously and said it would have been “irresponsible” of him to refrain from declaring martial law. He accused some of his opponents of colluding with Russia, while he said others were naive and easily manipulated by Moscow’s propaganda machine:
Apart from martial law, in addition to the threat of aggression, we still have the risks of playing into the hands of Moscow by our populists. Today, Putin proclaimed that the shooting of Ukrainian ships was a provocation of the Ukrainian authorities.
How’s that? And then you think whether they spoke differently when there were events in Salisbury. Lies as well. And the slogan “they are not there” – the same lies. It’s all clear to us. And how does it sound when some Ukrainian political parties yesterday tried to prove that it was Ukrainians’ fault – why did they send ships there
This is our sea, these are our ports. And we will never ask how we should move in our territory.
The “events in Salisbury” Poroshenko referred to were the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by Russian agents in the United Kingdom using military-grade chemical weapons. Most in the international community have rejected the Russian government’s denials of involvement in the attack on the Skripals, so Poroshenko implied the Russians are once again lying about the Kerch Strait incident.
Poroshenko visited a training facility for Ukrainian tank crews on Wednesday and told them to be ready for redeployment to the Russian border, “where we expect the possible beginning of ground aggression.”
“We need to keep the powder dry. We need to rebuff the aggressor at any moment,” the president advised.
“We have something to protect our native land with. The victory will surely be ours, because we are fighting for what is ours – for our Ukraine, for our land, for our people. We are defending our native land and our native people, our relatives – members of our families, wives, children and friends. We will not give them any chance to invade Ukraine,” he told the assembled tank crew and officers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday made his first comments on the Kerch Strait incident, downplaying its significance as a “border incident, nothing more.”
“This is certainly a provocation organized by the current government, I think, including the current president, on the eve of presidential elections in Ukraine in March next year,” Putin said.
“The current president is about fifth in [presidential] ratings, and there is a chance he won’t make it to the second round, so he needs to do something to aggravate the situation and create insurmountable obstacles for his competitors, first of all, from the opposition,” he added, accusing Poroshenko of planning to use martial law to postpone or cancel the election.
Putin made his comments at an investment forum in Moscow. He responded to criticism from a foreign guest at the forum by insisting Russia’s forces acted no differently on Sunday than any other border security force would.
“Military vessels intruded into Russian territorial waters and did not answer. What were they supposed to do? They would do the same in your country, this is absolutely obvious,” Putin said.
“These territorial waters were always ours, even before Crimea joined Russia,” he added – a highly debatable assertion since few other nations recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine accuses Russia of violating the 2003 bilateral Sea of Azov treaty that made the strait and the Sea of Azov shared territory between the two nations, as well as violating the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday he had no information about releasing the captured Ukrainian ships or crew members. Poroshenko has said he will spare no effort to recover them quickly.