Russia on Sunday fired on and captured three Ukrainian navy ships near the annexed Crimea peninsula.
Russian forces then took 23 Ukrainian soldiers prisoner, six of whom were injured, public broadcaster Polish Radio’s IAR news agency has reported.
Russia’s FSB security service has said the Ukrainian ships had entered Russian territorial waters illegally.
A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry has accused the Ukrainian authorities of “provocation.”
According to Kyiv-based think tank DiXi Group, “Russia lied twice” by arguing that Ukrainian vessels have violated its borders.
First, the think tank says, the United Nations General Assembly, the European Union, the United States, Canada and many other countries have consistently dismissed any claims by Russia to the territorial waters of Ukraine around the Crimea peninsula, designating such demands as illegitimate.
Second, the DiXi Group argues, the Ukrainian vessels were captured on territory “beyond the 12 nautical miles zone around Crimea” after they “attempted to exercise the right of peaceful passage through the Kerch Strait on their route to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol” under a 2003 bilateral maritime agreement between Russia and Ukraine “as some other Ukrainian ships have done earlier.”
Moreover, “Russia violated a number of international agreements,” including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, “which demands the freedom of maritime traffic,” and the bilateral Ukrainian-Russian Agreement on the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, “which provides for freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov as well as access to it through the Kerch Strait,” the DiXi Group said on its website.
'Blatant act of aggression'
The incident, which the think tank described as a “blatant act of undisclosed aggression,” may have "considerable implications" for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to cross the territorial waters of Denmark and Germany as well as the exclusive economic zones of Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, the DiXi Group said on its website.
“It could be expected” that Russia will cite “Nord Stream 2 pipeline protection as an excuse for expanding its presence in the territorial waters of these countries,” the think tank warns.
“One day, Russian forces – be it a regular army, private military companies or Gazprom's security units – could break into [the] 12-miles zone, as in the case of Ukraine, but there might be no direct response, in order not to escalate tensions.”
In 2007, a law was passed in Russia allowing that country’s two biggest energy monopolies, Gazprom and Transneft, to employ private security units and purchase weapons “under the pretext that strategic infrastructure has to be protected from terrorist attacks,” according to the DiXi Group.
“This fact is particularly important,” the think tank says because the number of incidents in the Baltic Sea involving the Russian military has grown in recent years, posing a threat to the “fragile security balance in the region.”
Also, Russia might be tempted to cite Nord Stream 2 pipeline protection as an argument to “control vessels traffic in the Baltic Sea,” according to the Ukrainian think tank.
“Starting from formal procedures … it might move to more aggressive control and blocking of ship traffic, possible delays in their schedules and influence on trade activities in the region,” the DiXi Group says.
Meanwhile, electronic warfare and surveillance systems “could be used to track other targets” not related to “Nord Stream 2 pipeline monitoring,” the think tank argues.
According to the DiXi Group, such threats are substantiated by “the long visible strategy of the Russian government to try violating the rules, track the response and, if not paying sufficient price for its actions, intensify its coercive actions.”
Russian aggression in Crimea and in the eastern regions of Ukraine in recent years has provided a “clear and simple” pattern: “The Russian government only stops where the price for continuing of intimidation and offence becomes too high to pay,” the think tank argues.
'Preventive actions by the West' needed
It says that “preventive actions by the West” could include “strict and explicit condemnation of Russia’s aggression in the Sea of Azov” and “unequivocal sign of readiness for military support through increased NATO presence in the Black and Azov Seas.”
Other moves could include “cancellation of permits provided for Nord Stream 2” based on security considerations and the EU’s 3rd Energy Package, the think tank concludes.
Ukraine has declared martial law in 10 districts for 30 days following the Sea of Azov incident.
A Polish deputy foreign minister said on Tuesday that Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships near Crimea indicates that Moscow aims to escalate tensions in the region.
The Polish and Ukrainian presidents have called for stepped-up sanctions against Russia, according to reports.
There are no signs that the escalated tensions between Ukraine and Russia pose an increased threat to Poland, the defence minister in Warsaw has said.
The 1,200-kilometre Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, is expected to supply around 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, circumventing Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Several dozen MEPs from different European countries have appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to halt the project.