No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Russian nuclear-capable bomber aircraft fly to Venezuela, angering U.S.

FILE PHOTO: Russian Tu-160 bombers fly during a joint Kazakh-Russian military exercise at Otar military range, some 150km (93 miles) west of Almaty, Kazakhstan, October 3, 2008. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Two Russian strategic bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons have landed in ally Venezuela, a show of support for Venezuela’s socialist government that has infuriated Washington.

The TU-160 supersonic bombers, known as “White Swans” by Russian pilots, landed at Maiquetia airport near capital Caracas on Monday after covering more than 10,000 km (6,200 miles), the Russian and Venezuelan governments said.

Their deployment came days after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose left-wing administration is the most significant U.S. foe in Latin America, held talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

As OPEC member Venezuela’s socialist-run economy implodes, Russia has become a key lender of last resort, investing in its oil industry and providing support to its military.

Capable of carrying short-range nuclear missiles, the planes can fly over 12,000 km (7,500 miles) without refueling and have landed in Venezuela twice before in the last decade.

“Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela,” fumed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”

‘HIGHLY UNDIPLOMATIC’

The Kremlin on Tuesday rejected Pompeo’s criticism, saying it was “highly undiplomatic” and “completely inappropriate.”

“As for the idea that we are squandering money, we do not agree. It’s not really appropriate for a country half of whose defense budget could feed the whole of Africa to be making such statements,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, which said the bombers had been accompanied by two other Russian military planes, did not say if the planes were carrying missiles, how long they would stay for, or what their mission was.

Russia has used them in the past to flex its military muscles under the nose of the United States, delighting Venezuelan officials who have cast such flights as evidence it is able to defend itself, with allies’ help, from any attack.

Maduro frequently invokes the possibility of a U.S. invasion in the South American nation, a notion U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration denies.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Pompeo’s comments “not only disrespectful but cynical,” highlighting the number of military bases the United States owns abroad.

“It’s strange the U.S. government questions our right to cooperate on defense and security with other countries, when @realDonaldTrump publicly threatens us with a military invasion,” Arreaza tweeted, referring to Trump’s Twitter handle.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for details on the bombers.

Maduro said the talks with Putin in Moscow this month yielded Russian investment in Venezuela’s oil and gold sectors.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Venezuelan counterpart at the time that such long-range flights provided pilots with excellent experience and helped maintain the planes’ combat readiness.

(Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in Caracas and Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O’Brien)

Chinese hacking against U.S. on the rise: U.S. intelligence official

A staff member sets up Chinese and U.S. flags for a meeting in Beijing, China April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Jim Finkle and Christopher Bing

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A senior U.S. intelligence official warned on Tuesday that Chinese cyber activity in the United States had risen in recent months, and the targeting of critical infrastructure in such operations suggested an attempt to lay the groundwork for future disruptive attacks.

”You worry they are prepositioning against critical infrastructure and trying to be able to do the types of disruptive operations that would be the most concern,” National Security Agency official Rob Joyce said in response to a question about Chinese hacking at a Wall Street Journal conference.

Joyce, a former White House cyber advisor for President Donald Trump, did not elaborate or provide an explanation of what he meant by critical infrastructure, a term the U.S. government uses to describe industries from energy and chemicals to financial services and manufacturing.

In the past, the U.S. government has openly blamed hackers from Iran, Russia or North Korea for disruptive cyberattacks against U.S. companies, but not China. Historically, Chinese hacking operations have been more covert and focused on espionage and intellectual property theft, according to charges filed by the Justice Department in recent years.

A spokesperson for Joyce said he was specifically referring to digital attacks against the U.S. energy, financial, transportation, and healthcare sectors in his speech on Tuesday.

The comments follow the arrest by Canadian authorities of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, at the request of the United States on Dec. 1. Wanzhou was extradited and faces charges in the U.S. related to sanctions violations.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle and Christopher Bing; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Russia ready to discuss fate of detained Ukrainian sailors after their trial

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives for a news conference on the sidelines of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Milan, Italy, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

MILAN (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would only be ready to discuss the fate of a group of Ukrainian sailors it captured last month after their trial was finished.

The United States and the European Union have called on Russia to free the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were detained by Russia on Nov. 25 near Russian-annexed Crimea. Moscow accuses them of illegally entering Russian waters, something Kiev denies.

Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Milan, said Russia would only be willing to discuss the sailors’ fate and the possibility of coming to some kind of agreement with Ukraine about them once their trial in Crimea was over.

No date for their trial has yet been set.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Tom Balmforth)

Caught in Russia-Ukraine storm: a cargo ship and tonnes of grain

Ships are seen in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk, Ukraine November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

By Polina Ivanova

BERDYANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – When the Island Bay cargo ship arrived from Beirut at the Kerch Strait, gateway to the Azov Sea, it sailed into a perfect storm of geopolitics and bad weather.

The following day, Russia opened fire on three Ukrainian naval ships, impounded them and detained their sailors, some of them wounded. It then blocked the strait by putting a tanker underneath a new bridge it has built linking the Russian mainland to the Crimean peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

While the world digested the implications of the Nov. 25 incident, the most explosive clash in recent years, Russia said it had reopened the channel to the Azov Sea, which is shared by Russia and Ukraine.

But Island Bay remained at anchor outside the strait, lashed by gale force winds and sleet, its hull icing over while cargo ships amassed on either side.

On Monday, a week on, the captain reported seeing 20 vessels awaiting clearance to cross. Refinitiv data that day also showed 20 Ukraine-bound vessels held up at the strait since Nov. 25, with two others allowed through.

Meanwhile, Island Bay’s cargo of 5,500 tonnes of wheat, destined for flour mills in Libya, waited in the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk.

The saga of the ship is a window on the leverage Moscow has over Ukraine’s Azov seaboard, affecting dock workers, port operators, brokers and farmers who depend on the route.

Russia, whose coast guards began inspecting traffic in the Kerch Strait eight months ago, blamed inclement weather for the delay. But on Sunday, when the skies cleared, just a handful of ships passed through; by Monday evening, the Island Bay’s captain’s frustration was beginning to show.

“It is acceptable weather for transit. Coast guards have own opinion,” his log, seen by Reuters, said. That day, he reported seeing just two ships cross into the Azov Sea.

Ukraine says the hiatus is one of many since the Russian spot-checks began in May, when Russia opened the Kerch bridge, interrupting exports of grain and steel and imports of coal. Moscow denies any disruption.

THE STEVEDORES

In Berdyansk’s port, where icy winds had recently ripped off the roof of a nearby shed, staff of stevedore company Ascet Shipping were reading the daily reports from the Island Bay with growing concern.

Ascet loads almost a million tonnes of Ukrainian grain a year onto cargo ships in Berdyansk and was waiting to load the Island Bay; its size means each day of waiting time costs around $2,000-$2,500, Ascet’s chief executive, Denis Rusin, said.

This has made Berdyansk an unpopular port in recent months.

“Ship owners do not want to go to Berdyansk,” said Rusin, whose clients include U.S. firm Cargill [CARG.UL], one of the world’s largest dry bulk and tank shipping companies. “Buyers are refusing to bet on passage.”

Since Russia and Ukraine clashed in the strait, Ukraine has introduced martial law in 10 regions, including the Azov Sea coast – highlighting the risks of doing business with Berdyansk.

“For us this was the worst week in recent years,” Rusin said. “Clients have stopped considering the possibility of signing contracts for delivery in January, let alone February or spring,” he said.

Cranes and ships are seen in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk, Ukraine November 30, 2018. Picture taken November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Cranes and ships are seen in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk, Ukraine November 30, 2018. Picture taken November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

THE PORT

Some Ukrainian politicians have accused Moscow of trying to strangle Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports in preparation for an invasion from the east, following on from Crimea’s annexation and the subsequent breakaway of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Moscow says that idea is a fantasy dreamt up by Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders ahead of elections next year. It says it has the right to patrol the strait.

But Berdyansk’s businesses say the patrols target ships bound for Ukraine, causing damaging delays.

The recent escalation in tensions has not affected ships coming to pick up grain from the Russian side of the Azov Sea, according to Sergei Filipov, director of trading firm QAM7 Dubai, which has operations there. He said inspections have delayed travel by the usual two or three days.

On its eleventh day at anchor in Kerch Strait, with skies finally clear, Island Bay reported to Berdyansk: “We called everywhere to make guards (come and) inspect the vessel, but their intentions cannot be explained.”

The situation has sent Rusin racing to further revise down his business forecasts.

Climbing out onto the windswept roof of his office on Friday, he pointed to a single truck of grain where multiple trucks used to line up along the dock.

“We had expected to load around 150,000 tonnes over the next three months… Maybe 200,000,” he said. Now the company is preparing for anything between 50,000 tonnes and no business at all, he said.

“This was a change of plan that happened this week.”

The Azov Sea grain supply chain makes up just 2 to 3 percent of Ukraine’s agricultural exports, deputy central bank chief Dmitry Sologub said. But for the southeastern Zaporozhye region, home to 1.8 million people, it is critical.

At the government Port Authority in Berdyansk, officials said they feared for the port’s future as clients look to other locations with direct access to the Black Sea.

“Of course we would prefer (to use other ports),” said Erdem Sekreter, fleet manager at Turkey’s Bayraktar shipping group, which has two ships waiting to cross the Kerch Strait to reach the Ukrainian coast.

“It is getting more expensive for ship-owners to go to the Azov Sea – the Ukrainian side of course,” he added. “We are paying out of our pocket now.”

FARMERS AND TRADERS

Bison Group owns 40,000 hectares of arable land in Zaporozhye region and exports much of its harvest via Berdyansk.

With ship-owners raising freight charges to factor in the new risks in the Azov Sea, the costs will be passed down to grain producers, Bison deputy director Igor Serov said. “It hits agricultural producers really hard.”

Prices will have to go down by at least $10 per tonne, a trader at Atria Brokers, which handles Berdyansk grain, said.

But producers may not have other options. The railway infrastructure is not in place to send exports via Black Sea ports instead, Serov said, and transferring grain by truck to Odessa, for example, would cost an extra $40 per tonne.

Buyers are also pulling back, afraid of the risks.

“Our sales have fallen,” the Atria trader said. “It has affected us in a fundamental way.”

Every day Island Bay’s cargo sits in port, it racks up costs for traders. Grain can spoil, and storage costs are steep.

“The market is suffering… everyone along the chain is paying the price for these war games,” a grain trader said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said some grain shipments from the Azov Sea had resumed.

Five of the 14 ships headed to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, held up since the stand-off, were still waiting to cross on Wednesday, Refinitiv data showed. One had turned back to Istanbul.

In comparison, of the ships aiming for one of Russian city Rostov-on-Don’s ports, that had arrived to Kerch Strait since the stand-off began, none were still waiting for passage, the data showed the same day.

Only one out of the six boats headed to Berdyansk had crossed by Wednesday. After twelve days at anchor in the waters near the strait, Island Bay was still waiting.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in KIEV and Polina Devitt in MOSCOW; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Putin: Russia will make banned missiles if U.S. exits arms treaty

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is seen during the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will develop missiles now banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty if the United States exits the arms control pact and starts making such weapons, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.

The United States delivered Russia a 60-day ultimatum on Tuesday to come clean about what Washington says is a violation of the 1987 nuclear arms control treaty, saying it would be forced to start a six-month process of withdrawal if nothing changes.

Putin, in televised comments, accused the United States of blaming Russia for violations as a pretext for Washington to exit the pact.

Putin noted that many countries produce missiles banned under the INF treaty, but that Moscow and Washington had undertaken to limit themselves with the accord signed in 1987.

“Now it seems our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that the United States must also have such a weapon. What’s our response? It’s simple: in that case, we will also do this,” he said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Ukraine resumes grain shipments from Azov Sea

FILE PHOTO: Cranes are seen in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, Ukraine December 2, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Tuesday it had resumed grain shipments from the Azov Sea, blocked for around 10 days after a military standoff with Russia in the Kerch Strait off Crimea.

Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews on Nov. 25 after opening fire on them, accusing them of illegally entering its territorial waters.

Ukraine denied its ships had done anything wrong and accused Russia of military aggression. Its president, Petro Poroshenko, imposed martial law on Nov. 26 in parts of the country deemed most vulnerable to Russian attack.

“The passage of vessels with agricultural products through ports in the Azov Sea has been unlocked,” Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said on Tuesday in a statement.

“The loading of grain to vessels through the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is restored and carried out in regular mode,” it said.

Earlier, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Volodymyr Omelyan had said the two ports – vital for eastern Ukraine’s economy – had been “partially unlocked” with the restoration of some free movement through the Kerch Strait.

Germany welcomed the news but also repeated its call for Russia to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors who are facing charges of illegally entering Russian waters.

“We will try to ensure that this conflict does not result in a serious crisis,” Foreign Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers also attended by officials from Ukraine and Georgia.

Germany wants to de-escalate the situation and work toward a political solution, he said, adding there would be further discussions on the issue this week but gave no details.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the Azov Sea standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Ukrainian leader says Putin wants his whole country, asks for NATO help

By Thomas Escritt and Andrew Osborn

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday of wanting to annex his entire country and called for NATO to deploy warships to a sea shared by the two nations.

Poroshenko’s comments to German media were part of a concerted push by Kiev to gain Western support for more sanctions against Moscow, securing tangible Western military help, and rallying opposition to a Russian gas pipeline that threatens to deprive Ukraine of important transit revenues.

His Western allies have so far not offered to provide any of these things, despite his warnings of a possible Russian invasion after Moscow seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews on Sunday near Crimea.

Moscow and Kiev blame each other for the incident, which took place in the narrow Kerch Strait off Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014.

“Don’t believe Putin’s lies,” Poroshenko told Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling paper, comparing Russia’s protestations of innocence in the affair to Moscow’s 2014 denial that it had soldiers in Crimea even as they moved to annex it.

“Putin wants the old Russian empire back,” he said. “Crimea, Donbass, the whole country. As Russian tsar, as he sees himself, his empire cannot function without Ukraine. He sees us as his colony.”

Putin has accused Poroshenko of manufacturing the crisis to boost his flagging ratings ahead of next year’s elections in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said on Thursday Russia had imposed a de facto blockade on two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov by barring ships from leaving and entering the sea via the Kerch Strait.

The Kremlin denied it was restricting shipping, saying it had not heard of any problems. If there were any delays they were due to bad weather rather than politics, it said.

WARSHIPS

Poroshenko told Bild he also wanted NATO to deploy warships to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is not a member of the U.S.-led military alliance.

NATO, which has condemned Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she thought there was no military solution to the crisis.

The Kremlin said Poroshenko’s request appeared to be aimed at increasing tensions in the area.

The prospect of NATO warships heading to the Sea of Azov seems remote as it is shallow, access to it is controlled by Russia, and the Kremlin would likely view any attempt by the Atlantic alliance to deploy there as a hostile act.

Poroshenko, who has temporarily imposed martial law in parts of Ukraine over the crisis, also tweeted on Thursday that he would impose unspecified restrictions on Russian citizens in his country. He spoke of banning some foreign currency and banking operations in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s border service said it would only allow Ukrainian citizens to travel to Crimea via its land border with the annexed territory, while the head of the Ukrainian navy said Kiev would try to get Turkey to close the Bosphorus Strait to Russian ships.

There were further signs that Russia was pressing ahead with its plans to fortify Crimea and turn it into what Kremlin-backed media have called a fortress.

MISSILE SYSTEMS

Russia on Thursday deployed a new battalion of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Crimea, its fourth such battalion, TASS news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as saying.

Citing a Crimean security source, Interfax news agency also reported Russian plans to build a new missile early-warning radar station in Crimea next year that would be able to track ballistic and cruise missiles from a long distance.

Russia was also working on a new technical system to allow it to better track shipping around the peninsula in order to protect its maritime borders, Interfax said.

The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized and annexed Crimea after a pro-Russian leader was toppled in Kiev.

Moscow later backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. Major fighting ended with a 2015 ceasefire but deadly exchanges of fire are still frequent.

Poroshenko urged Berlin to halt an undersea pipeline project that would allow Russia to supply more gas to Germany directly.

The Nord Stream 2 project is a potentially serious problem for Ukraine, which currently earns large transit fees from piping Russian gas to Europe and stands to lose out.

“We need a strong, resolute and clear reaction to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” Poroshenko told the Funke newspaper group. “That also means stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.”

But Germany’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, dismissed the idea that his country’s commitment to the pipeline undermined efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.

Poroshenko’s attempts to persuade the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia are also unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, diplomats say, given divisions within the bloc over how to deal with Moscow.

Merkel said she would raise the Black Sea issue with Putin at a G20 summit which starts in Argentina on Friday. Putin is also due to hold talks there with U.S. President Donald Trump.

(For a graphic on ‘Ukrainian regions under martial law and also Kerch Strait’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2RhSHmC)

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Berlin and Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)

Putin defiant on Ukraine crisis despite Trump summit talks threat

FILE PHOTO: Russian jet fighters fly over a bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula with a cargo ship beneath it after three Ukrainian navy vessels were stopped by Russia from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea, Crimea November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn and Anton Zverev

MOSCOW/KERCH, Crimea (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday shrugged off a threat from U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel a meeting with him due to Moscow’s seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships, and accused Ukraine’s president of orchestrating the crisis.

Russia seized the Ukrainian vessels and their crews on Sunday near Crimea, the Ukrainian region which Moscow annexed in 2014, over what it said was their illegal entry into Russian waters, which Ukraine denies.

The episode has raised fears in the West of a wider conflict between the two countries, and Trump said on Tuesday that he might cancel a planned meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina later this week as a response to “aggression”.

Some of Ukraine’s Western allies have also raised the possibility of imposing new sanctions on Russia over the episode, which could deliver a blow to the Russian economy.

But Putin, in his first public comments on the Black Sea incident, said that the Ukrainian vessels had clearly been in the wrong, dismissed the clash as a minor border issue, and accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of having orchestrated the crisis in order to boost his dire ratings.

Putin said he also still hoped to meet Trump at the G20, while the Kremlin said the meeting was still being prepared and Washington had not informed Moscow it was off.

“It was, without doubt, a provocation,” Putin told a financial forum in Moscow of the incident. “It was organized by the president ahead of the elections. The president is in fifth place ratings-wise and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was saddened by what he asserted was Washington’s willingness to encourage Ukraine’s “provocation”.

Putin said the West was willing to forgive Ukrainian politicians because it bought into their anti-Russian narrative.

Kiev has introduced martial law in parts of the country, saying it fears a possible Russian invasion.

Speaking in northern Ukraine, Poroshenko, who has accused Moscow of naked military aggression, talked up his country’s readiness to respond to any future Russian military action.

“It’s important to keep our powder dry and be ready at any moment to push back the aggressor,” said Poroshenko, adding that he had received offers from hundreds of Ukrainian war veterans who said they were ready to return and defend the country.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (R) addresses servicemen as he visits the 169th training centre "Desna" of the Ukrainian Army ground forces in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine November 28, 2018. Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (R) addresses servicemen as he visits the 169th training centre “Desna” of the Ukrainian Army ground forces in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine November 28, 2018. Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

MISSILES FOR CRIMEA

The United States and the EU have both imposed sanctions on Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula after a pro-Russian leader was toppled in Kiev.

Moscow later backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. Major fighting ended with a 2015 ceasefire but deadly exchanges of fire are still frequent.

A Kremlin aide said on Wednesday that Putin had rebuffed an initiative from Poroshenko for the two men to speak by phone.

Vadim Astafyev, a spokesman for Russia’s southern military district, was cited by Russian news agencies as saying that a new battalion of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles would be delivered to Crimea soon and become operational by year’s end.

The deployment is likely to have been long-planned, but the timing of the announcement appeared designed to send a message to Ukraine and the West that Russia is serious about defending what it regards as its own territory and waters.

Crimea already hosts three battalions of the anti-aircraft missile systems which have a range of up to 400 km (250 miles) allowing Russia to control large swaths of the skies above the Black Sea. The new missile deployment to Crimea would allow Russia to increase its air defense coverage area.

Separately, a Reuters correspondent in Crimea on Wednesday observed a Russian navy minesweeper ship, the Vice-Admiral Zakharin, heading in the direction of the Sea of Azov.

The sea is home to major ports of both Russia and Ukraine and can be reached only through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait near where Sunday’s incident took place.

A court in Crimea’s capital Simferopol on Wednesday ordered nine of the 24 captured Ukrainian sailors – including senior Ukrainian naval officers and at least one member of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency – held for a period of two months. The same court ordered the other 15 sailors on Tuesday to be detained for two months pending a possible trial.

All of the sailors face jail terms of up to six years if found guilty of what Moscow says was a plot to illegally cross the Russian border by trying to pass through the strait without advance notice and ignoring calls to stop.

Ukraine says its ships did nothing wrong and have every right to use the strait without Russian permission.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Daria Korsunksaya, Tom Balmforth, Polina Ivanova, Vladimir Soldatkin, Katya Golubkova, Gleb Stolyarov and Oksana Kobzeva in Moscow, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff)

Ukraine introduces martial law citing threat of Russian invasion

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks during a parliament session to review his proposal to introduce martial law for 60 days after Russia seized Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea, in Kiev, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Andrew Osborn and Natalia Zinets

MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine on Monday imposed martial law for 30 days in parts of the country most vulnerable to an attack from Russia after President Petro Poroshenko warned of the “extremely serious” threat of a land invasion.

Poroshenko said martial law was necessary to bolster Ukraine’s defenses after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships and took their crews prisoner at the weekend.

Parliament approved the introduction of martial law after Poroshenko reassured some skeptical lawmakers that it would not be used to curb civil liberties or delay elections scheduled for next year.

It came at the end of a day when Ukraine and Russia traded accusations about Sunday’s standoff and Kiev’s allies weighed in to condemn Moscow’s behavior.

With relations still raw after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the crisis risked pushing the two countries into open conflict.

“Russia has been waging a hybrid war against our country for a fifth year. But with an attack on Ukrainian military boats it moved to a new stage of aggression,” Poroshenko said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he did not like what was happening between Russia and Ukraine and was working with European leaders on the situation.

In a phone call with Poroshenko, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg offered the alliance’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Ukraine is not a NATO member though it aspires to membership.

Washington’s envoy to the United Nations said Russia’s actions were an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory” and sanctions on Russia would remain in place.

The European Union, Britain, France, Poland, Denmark, and Canada all condemned what they called Russian aggression. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the need for dialogue.

Members vote during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council about the situation in Crimea at U.N. Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Members vote during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council about the situation in Crimea at U.N. Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The stand-off in the Azov Sea is more combustible now than at any time in the past four years as Ukraine has rebuilt its armed forces, previously in disarray, and has a new generation of commanders who are confident and have a point to prove.

 

“PROVOCATION”

Russia’s foreign ministry blamed Kiev for the crisis.

“It’s obvious that this painstakingly thought-through and planned provocation was aimed at igniting another source of tension in the region in order to create a pretext to ramp up sanctions against Russia,” it said in a statement.

Such a policy was “fraught with serious consequences”, it said, adding that Kiev was acting in coordination with the United States and the European Union.

Russia summoned the ranking diplomat at Kiev’s embassy in Moscow over the incident, the foreign ministry said.

In Kiev, Poroshenko said intelligence data suggested there was an “extremely serious threat” of a land-based operation against Ukraine by Russia.

“I have a document of intelligence in my hands…Here on several pages is a detailed description of all the forces of the enemy located at a distance of literally several dozens of kilometers from our border. Ready at any moment for an immediate invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Martial law would allow Ukraine to respond swiftly to any invasion and mobilize resources as quickly as possible, he said.

He dismissed “dirty speculation” by critics that he wanted to use the proposed measure to delay elections next year, where he faces a tough re-election fight and opinion polls show him trailing his opponents. Ukrainian lawmakers held a second vote to confirm the polls would take place as scheduled on March 31.

UKRAINIANS WOUNDED, VESSELS HELD

Russia’s rouble currency weakened 1.4 percent against the dollar in Moscow on Monday, its biggest one-day fall since Nov. 9, while Russian dollar-bonds fell.

Markets are highly sensitive to anything that could trigger new Western sanctions and therefore weaken the Russian economy. A fall in the price of oil — Russia’s biggest source of revenue — has made its economy more vulnerable.

The crisis erupted when border patrol boats belonging to Russia’s FSB security service seized two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat after opening fire on them and wounding three sailors on Sunday.

The Ukrainian vessels had been trying to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea via the narrow Kerch Strait that separates Crimea from the Russian mainland.

Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, as saying on Monday that 24 Ukrainian sailors were being detained. Three of the sailors were wounded but were not in a serious condition and were recovering in hospital.

The FSB said the Ukrainian ships had ignored warning shots, forcing Russian vessels to open fire for real, after they illegally entered Russian territorial waters.

A Reuters witness in Kerch, a port in Crimea, said the three Ukrainian vessels were being held there on Monday.

Domestic politics in Moscow also add to the combustibility of the situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen his high approval rating fall because of unpopular domestic policies. In the past, successful military action beyond Russia’s borders has buoyed his popularity.

Tensions have been long brewing over the Azov Sea. Crimea, on the western shore, is now controlled by Moscow, the eastern shore is Russian territory, and the northern shore is controlled by Ukraine.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Stine Buch Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Karin Strohecker in London, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, and European bureaux; Writing by Andrew Osborn/Christian Lowe/Matthias Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Angus MacSwan)