This is a point-by-point summary of what we know about the incident in the Black Sea that took place on Nov. 25.
Russian Coast Guard ships attacked and then seized three Ukrainian Navy boats as the Ukrainian vessels tried to cross the Kerch Strait connecting the Black and Azov Sea.
A video leaked to social media shows a Russian vessel ramming a much smaller Ukrainian speedboat. The Russian ships also shot at the Ukrainian vessels, while the Ukrainians didn’t fire back.
The three boats and 23 Ukrainian sailors, six of them injured, were taken to the port of Kerch in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Why is it important?
The attack is the culmination of months of tension in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, with Russia seizing full control of the Kerch Strait and effectively bullying Ukrainian vessels in the Azov Sea, which the two nations are supposed to share under an international treaty signed in 2003.
Russia has been waging a war in eastern Ukraine since 2014, which has killed more than 10,300 people, and forced at least 1.5 million Ukrainians to leave their homes to escape the fighting.
The maritime attack signifies that Russia has de facto seized control of the Azov Sea, cutting Ukraine’s south-eastern region from access to the Black Sea and the world’s oceans. This also gives Russia an advantage if it decides to escalate its war against Ukraine: it can attack from the sea.
Also, this is the first time that Russian forces have attacked Ukrainian military openly, under the Russian flag. Until now, Russia in its war against Ukraine has either acted through proxies or deployed its military without insignia.
What is the Kerch Strait?
The Kerch Strait is a strip of water connecting the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, which lies between the coasts of Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar Krai. It is 4.5 kilometers wide at its narrowest part.
It is the only entrance to the Azov Sea. Ukraine and Russia have equal rights to use both the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, according to the agreement the two nations signed in 2003.
In May, Russia opened the Crimean Bridge – an automobile bridge going across the Kerch Strait, connecting Russia’s own territory to the Crimean Peninsula, which it invaded and started to occupy in 2014. It gave Russians faster access to the peninsula compared to the ferries that were used before.
But it also gave Russia a pretext to stop and delay Ukrainian and foreign vessels trying to pass through the strait on their way in or out of the Azov Sea: The Russians have been justifying the delays by saying they are security measures aimed at protecting the bridge.
How exactly did the attack happen?
On Nov. 23, three Ukrainian navy vessels, a tug and two patrol boats, left the Black Sea port of Odesa and headed to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol in the Azov Sea.
The boats were being relocated to reinforce the Ukrainian Navy in the Azov Sea, according to President Petro Poroshenko.
To get to the Azov Sea, the boats needed to pass the Kerch Strait, which is effectively controlled by Russia.
The boats’ crew contacted Russian commanders in Kerch for a permission to go through the strait, but a response didn’t come immediately, Ukraine’s Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko said at a Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council meeting late on Nov. 25. Later, the Russian commanders in Kerch ordered the Ukrainian boats to move to a waiting area and await permission to pass through the Kerch Strait.
At around 11 a.m. on Nov. 25, the Russians told the Ukrainian sailors that the Kerch Strait was closed off to vessels because a cargo ship had run aground in the strait, blocking the way.
Muzhenko claimed this was untrue, because three Russian military ships were seen crossing the strait just two hours after the announcement.
The Ukrainian boats waited for permission to enter the strait until 5 p.m. When it didn’t come, they decided to turn back and return to Odesa. That’s when the attack happened.
As the three boats left the waiting area near the Kerch Strait and headed east through the Black Sea, several Russian Coast Guard boats chased, rammed and opened fire at them. The Ukrainians didn’t fire back.
The Ukrainian boats were seized and escorted to Kerch.
Who is in the right – Ukraine or Russia?
The Russian authorities say the Ukrainian vessels violated Russia’s territorial waters, defined as a 12-nautical-mile area near the coast. Ukraine’s Chief of General Staff Muzhenko said the Ukrainian vessels were attacked when they were “13 or 14 miles” off the coast, meaning there was no violation.
While the exact place of the attack isn’t clear, one estimate by a Ukrainian maritime expert, chief editor of Black Sea News website Andrii Klymenko places it almost exactly 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) off the coast of Crimea.
If this is correct, the Russians’ accusation that the Ukrainian vessels violated “Russia’s territorial waters” are nullified: Crimea, although occupied by Russia, de jure remains a Ukrainian territory.
Another estimate by the Agence France-Presse placed the attack farther north, in the Kerch Strait. But according to a 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia, the two nations have equal rights to use the Azov Sea – and the Kerch Strait is a part of it. If the attack happened within the Kerch Strait, it would mean Russia violated the 2003 agreement.
One way or another, the whole situation occurred because Russia has seized full control of the Kerch Strait, which it is supposed to share with Ukraine.
Ukraine’s President Poroshenko called a meeting of the Security and Defense Council late on Nov. 25 and proposed to introduce martial law in the country.
The Ukrainian parliament started to consider Poroshenko’s martial law decree at an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. on Nov. 26.
The martial law has a high chance of going through. While Poroshenko is supported by a majority in parliament, some of his opponents also spoke in favor of martial law. These included Lviv Mayor and Head of Samopomich Party Andriy Sadoviy, whose party has 25 seats in parliament.
Russia announced on Nov. 26 that it had reopened the Kerch Strait for international shipping.
What does the world say?
Some of Ukraine’s key allies supported the country on Nov. 26 following the attack in the Black Sea.
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed that an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has been called for and would take place on Nov. 26 at 11 a.m. New York time, or 6 p.m. in Kyiv.
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