Russia Jails Two Ukrainian Sailors Involved In Kerch Strait Confrontation

Ignoring Ukraine's demands that its sailors be treated as prisoners of war, Russia has decided to jail two of the Ukrainian sailors captured on Sunday when Russian Navy ships rammed and fired on three Ukrainian vessels that Moscow said were "maneuvering dangerously" near the Kerch Strait. The Russian Coast Guard captured some two dozen sailors after commandeering the ships, which included to Ukrainian artillery ships and a tugboat. Russia has refused to release the ships and the sailors despite demands from European and US officials.

According to Radio Free Europe, a Russian court in Simferopol ruled that the men should be kept in custody for two months while Russia carries out an investigation. News of the court's decision follows the release of interrogation footage where three of the sailors admitted to "provoking" Russia and said they were just following orders. In Russia "pretrial detention" typically means that the men will be locked behind bars in a jail.

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The court would also carry out custody hearings for 12 other captured sailors on Tuesday, with nine more expected on Wednesday.

Russian law allows for the term of their detention to be extended at prosecutors' request. It's not clear when the sailors, who have been accused of violating Russia's border, will face trial.

Six Ukrainians were injured on Sunday when Russian ships fired on the Ukrainian vessels, while a Russian shipped rammed the tugboat. After the ships were halted, Russian special forces stormed the vessels and took them into custody.

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Following comments from the leader of the British army who claimed that Russia represents a greater security risk to the UK than ISIS, a British diplomat accused Russia of trying to cement its domination of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, by expanding its dominance to the Sea of Azov.

Britain's Deputy UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen said Russia "wants to consolidate its illegal annexation of Crimea and annex the Sea of Azov," where Ukraine has several ports.

The international community will not accept this, he said, insisting that Russia “must not be allowed to rewrite history by establishing new realities on the ground."

During a phone call with German leader Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about Ukraine's decision to declare martial law in ten border regions, saying it could lead to "the threat of escalation" - which, ironically, is exactly what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said to justify it. As Ukraine deploys reservists to the border provinces affected by the order, opposition politicians have questioned why martial law is needed now, and not during the worst of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine during the insurgency that flared in 2014 and 2015. Still, Poroshenko's warnings of an imminent Russian invasion helped win support for the measure in the country's parliament.

"The imposition of martial law in various regions potentially could lead to the threat of an escalation of tension in the conflict region, in the southeast" of Ukraine, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later told reporters.

Russia's decision to jail the sailors will likely inflame the diplomatic crisis that erupted following Sunday's confrontation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Putin and Poroshenko should meet to resolve the dispute amicably. But given the developments over the past day, that doesn't look likely.

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(Courtesy of Radio Free Europe)

Though NATO has said it will back Ukraine no matter what, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday urged Russia and Ukraine to exercise "maximum restraint" to avoid further escalation. As fears of a hot war run high, the deeply unpopular Poroshenko is running to keep his seat in a March election that he is widely expected to lose. Will his stand against Russia be enough to revive his sagging popularity? Or will the Ukrainian leader need to resort to more drastic measures to convince the Ukrainian people to fall in line behind their leader during a period of crisis?