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Ukraine Says Russia Blocking Most Of Sea Of Azov As Tensions Mount Between Kyiv And Moscow

By RFE/RL December 11, 2021

Russia has blocked off nearly 70 percent of the Sea of Azov around the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian Navy has announced.

"Currently, the Russians have issued navigation warnings on restrictions on navigation in certain areas, allegedly in connection with artillery fire in areas near Mariupol, Berdyansk and Henichesk," the Ukrainian Navy said in a statement issued on December 10.

The Russian side has so far neither confirmed nor denied the claims, which come amid heightened tensions and fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as it has massed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine and inside Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, when it also began backing separatists in southeastern Ukraine, including militarily.

On December 9, Russia's Federal Security Service said a Ukrainian vessel had headed toward the Kerch Strait without permission. Ukraine dismissed the Russian complaints as part of a Russian "information attack" on Kyiv.

The Sea of Azov is an internal sea with Russia to the east and Ukraine to the west. It is connected to the larger Black Sea by the Kerch Strait.

In November 2018, three Ukrainian military vessels were hijacked by the Russian border guard while trying to cross the strait. The 24 sailors were released only after months of negotiations.

U.S. intelligence assesses that Russia has at least 70,000 troops near Ukraine and could be planning a multifront offensive as early as next year involving up to 175,000 troops.

Russia denies it is planning to attack, claiming instead that Ukraine and NATO are provoking tensions. Moscow is demanding security guarantees against NATO's expansion to Ukraine or deploying alliance troops and weapons there. Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, but receives strong backing from members.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on December 10 that Moscow is proposing a series of steps to reduce tensions, including holding military exercises at agreed limits from Russia-NATO borders and set safe distances between their opposing warships and planes, especially in the Baltic and Black Seas.

Earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned the United States and its allies not to dismiss Russia's demands for legally binding security guarantees.

The European Union wants to stave off any possible invasion with the help of a concrete sanctions package, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on December 10.

"Aggression must have a price tag," von der Leyen said on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels with Olaf Scholz, the new chancellor of Germany.

"Therefore, we will communicate these points in advance in an appropriate form ... to Russia," von der Leyen said, adding further details would not be made public.

She left open whether a ban on the operation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, could be part of the sanctions package.

"In general, it is important that energy should never be used as a means of exerting pressure and that the energy security of Europe and its neighbors must be guaranteed," the top EU official said.

Scholz said, "It's very clear that Germany, the European Union and many other countries would react if border violations occurred."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that more opportunities for talks with Russia may arise thanks to the U.S. diplomatic effort to help de-escalate tensions.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with both Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, as the United States moved to take a more direct role in diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow.

Biden proposed joining the Europeans in negotiations not just to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine but to address Putin's larger strategic objections to NATO expanding its membership eastwards.

In an interview aired December 10 by the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, Zelenskiy said that, "thanks to the U.S.," one more platform for talks with Russia may appear, in addition to the so-called Normandy format that involves France and Germany.

The two European countries in 2015 brokered a peace agreement that helped end large-scale hostilities in Ukraine's east, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

But efforts to reach a political settlement of the conflict that has since killed more than 13,200 people have failed, and sporadic skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact.

Zelenskiy said that, with the support of the United States and Ukraine's European allies, he doesn't rule out direct talks between him and Putin - something he has proposed to the Russian leader several times to no avail.

"I see the support for this path from both our European partners and the U.S.," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy said the message he got from Biden during their call on December 8 was that "Russia assured the U.S. and the whole world that it doesn't intend to continue the escalation against the territory of our independent state."

With reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, and AFP

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-azov- sea-russia-tensions/31604367.html

Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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