Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide joined European colleagues on Monday in condemning what many were calling Russia’s “hijacking” of Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea region on Sunday. As a member of NATO, Norway was also taking part in a crisis meeting in Brussels Monday afternoon.
“Russian use of force against Ukrainian vessels is unacceptable,” Søreide wrote in a message on social media Monday. “We urge Russia to free the vessels and their crews.”
Søreide, who was in Vienna on Monday for politial meetings and the launch of a study on the West Balkans, added that all Ukrainian vessels, and those from other countries, must be secured free passage to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov.
Reaction was strong from other European countries as well after Russia fired shots at three Ukrainian vessels and then boarded and took control over them after claiming they had violated Russian territory. At least two Ukrainian crew members were reportedly wounded.
Russia also initially blocked the Kerch Strait that offers the only access to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea, and thus to much of Ukraine’s coast. The strait was blocked by a large tanker, but it was moved during the night and the strait reopened on Monday. The three Ukrainian vessels were berthed at the port of Kerch, which Russia seized during its highly controversial annexation of Crimea in 2014. Norway has supported Ukraine and joined international sanctions against Russia that were imposed after the annexation.
NATO, the UN and several countries, especially those with borders to Russia like Estonia, were calling extraordinary meetings to discuss and tackle the new and potentially dangerous situation. EU President Donald Tusk of Poland condemned Russia’s use of force, demanded that Russian authorities immediately release the vessels and their crews and that Russia refrain from further provocation.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also called Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian vessels “unacceptable,” while Ukrainian President Petro Porosjenko asked the country’s national assembly to invoke a 60-day state of emergency in the country. Demonstrations against Russia were already breaking out in Ukraine, and targeting Russia’s embassy in Kiev. NATO has expressed its full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to transport within its own territory.
It’s the territory that’s clearly a matter of dispute, with Russia claiming the vessels encroached upon its territory and was engaging in “dangerous methods” in the region. Most other European countries were claiming that it was Russia that has broken international laws.
May not have been planned
“The last thing we want is an escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukriane,” said German Foreign Minister Michael Roth, while France also urged Russia to release the ships and their crews. The Polish president called for punitive measures against Russia, while the foreign minister of Moldova claimed security in the Balkan region was threatened.
Tor Bukkvoll, who specializes in Russian issues at the Norwegian defense department’s research institute, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday that he doesn’t think the Ukrainian ship seizures were planned. “I think this is more about their different attitudes towards who’s right,” Bukkvoll said. “Both sides claim this was a provocation to serve their own interests, but I doubt that.”
Bukkvoll thinks it’s a result of disagreements on what regulations apply in the area, maritime and otherwise. He thinks the situation will probably blow over, but that more can emerge in the future.