In an escalation of ongoing hostilities, Ukraine said Russia fired on several of its ships on Sunday before ultimately seizing them, according to the Associated Press. The Ukrainian navy has said that the Russian coast guard attacked three different vessels in the Black Sea, wounding two Ukrainian crew members in the process.
The Ukrainian navy was attempting to move the vessels from the Black Sea to the smaller Sea of Azov, which requires traveling through the Kerch Strait, according to multiple news reports. The strait is the only entrance to the Sea of Azov, over which Ukraine and Russia share control, per a 2003 treaty. But while the lone passageway is technically a shared territory, according to the AP, Russia has been amping up its control over the strait in the last several years.
On Sunday, Russian officials blamed their actions on the Ukrainian navy. “There is irrefutable evidence that Kiev prepared and orchestrated provocations ... in the Black Sea,” the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said in a statement, according to the AP. “These materials will soon be made public.” The Russian government further asserted that the Ukrainian vessels had crossed into Russian waters, per The Telegraph.
In a separate statement, the Ukrainian navy accused Russia of carrying "out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships," according to the AP. Russia has since blocked off the strait entirely, parking a tanker boat under the Kerch bridge. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reportedly held a meeting with top military staff following the clash, according to The Telegraph.
This particular region has been the source of a lot of stress for the international community in recent years, largely for geopolitical reasons. The Kerch Strait separates Russia not only from continental Ukraine, but also from Crimea, a peninsula that formally belongs to Ukraine, according to the bulk of the international community. However, in 2014 Russia seized control of Crimea. After this, Crimeans — the majority of whom speak Russian, per the BBC — voted in favor of the annexation. The vote was widely considered illegitimate and sparked international outrage.
Years later, the United States still does not recognize Crimea as a Russian territory. This was affirmed by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders as recently as July.
“We do not recognize Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea,” Sanders told reporters over the summer, per POLITICO. “We agree to disagree with Russia on that front. And our Crimea sanctions against Russia will remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine.”
These tensions provide the backdrop for the events that unfolded on Sunday. But by the weekend's end, it was not clear how the U.S. government would respond. Just earlier this month, the United States placed additional sanctions on Russia for its presence in and occupation of Crimea, according to CNN. But in general, the president's public comments on Russia have been significantly less harsh than the rhetoric pushed by other members of the administration. This means that a temperature check on U.S. response may not be immediately available.