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Despite calls from Ukraine no signs of US, allied ships heading to Sea of Azov

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter and the command and control ship USS Mount Whitney sail in the Black Sea during exercise Sea Breeze on July 13, 2018. Ukraine?s president urged NATO to send warships into the neighboring Sea of Azov, but the alliance has shown no interest in forcing its way into waters under Russian control.

JUSTIN STUMBERG/U.S. NAVY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2018

Ukraine’s president urged NATO on Thursday to send warships into the Sea of Azov, as President Donald Trump announced he was canceling a planned meeting with Russia's president over the seizure of Ukrainian ships and crews this week.

President Petro Poroshenko, in an interview with the German Bild newspaper, said “we hope that in NATO, states are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security.”

So far the U.S.-led alliance has shown no interest in forcing its way into waters under Russian control.

However, Trump announced a tweet that he would no longer meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which had been set for noon Dec. 1 at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

On Sunday, Russian military forces fired upon three Ukrainian vessels attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait — a narrow passage that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Moscow seized the ships and captured about 23 sailors, marking a major escalation between two countries that have been at odds since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Poroshenko, who declared martial law in parts of his country earlier this week, also said he is worried that Moscow is planning a new ground offensive to annex more Ukrainian territory.

Moscow blamed Ukraine for the clash, saying that the ships failed to provide proper transit notifications, which Kiev and Western states have dismissed as false. So far, the West has offered condemnations of Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships but made no move to sanction Russia.

It is unlikely NATO would agree to send ships into the Sea of Azov — a body of water defined in a bilateral agreement as internal to Russia and Ukraine, though some maritime law experts theorize that a small portion of the central sea could be considered international waters. Russia also controls access to Azov at the Kerch Strait, which means sending warships in a show of force could risk a dangerous escalation. There are also operational limits on what allied ships could be deployed to the Sea of Azov, which in many places is too shallow for larger vessels, such as destroyers, to operate.

However, the U.S. and NATO navies regularly patrol the Black Sea and could opt to increase those missions. Commercial aviation trackers also show that U.S. surveillance aircraft are a regular presence in the Black Sea and around the Kerch Strait.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other NATO foreign ministers will gather in Brussels for high-level talks, where they are expected to the discuss the clash at sea. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance was still assessing how to respond.

Poroshenko said the West should show solidarity with Ukraine if it wants to contain Russia under Putin.

“The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world,” Poroshenko said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver
 

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