Ukraine calls for Nato's help

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has asked Nato members, including Germany, to send naval vessels to the Sea of Azov to back his country in its stand-off with Russia.

“Germany is one of our closest allies and we hope that states within Nato are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security,” he told Germany’s ‘Bild’ newspaper.

President Vladimir Putin has insisted Russian forces were right to seize three Ukrainian ships and their crews last weekend as they sailed from Odessa to Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov. But Mr Poroshenko declared Mr Putin “wants nothing less than to occupy the sea. The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world.

“We cannot accept this aggressive policy of Russia. First it was Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now he wants the Sea of Azov.

“Germany, too, has to ask itself: What will Putin do next if we do not stop him?” he added on the day Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman was to visit Berlin.

Yesterday, Nato said it already has a strong presence in the Black Sea region.

Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Nato ships routinely patrol and exercise in the Black Sea, noting Nato ships have spent 120 days there this year compared to 80 in 2017.

Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships on Sunday, accusing them of illegally entering its waters in the Sea of Azov, in a dramatic spike in tensions that raises fears of a wider escalation.

Kiev accused Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, of launching “a new phase of aggression”.

Earlier this week Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg demanded Russia free the Ukrainian ships and sailors, warning Moscow that “its actions have consequences”.

Mr Poroshenko also told the German newspaper that German “Chancellor [Angela] Merkel is a great friend of Ukraine.

“In 2015, she already saved our country through her negotiations in Minsk, and we hope she will once again support us so strongly, together with our other allies.

“Putin wants to bring back the old Russian Empire. Crimea, Donbas, he wants the whole country,” he added.

“As a Russian emperor, as he sees himself, his empire cannot function without Ukraine, he sees us as a colony.”

Yesterday Mr Poroshenko also said his government will impose unspecified restrictions on Russian citizens in response to the seizure of the vessels and their crews.

He said the one-month period of martial law introduced this week in Ukraine wouldn’t restrict travel, cash withdrawals or currency purchases by Ukrainians but Russians will face some constraints.

Ukrainian authorities have already denied entry to an increased number of Russians following the weekend incident.

Meanwhile, Ms Merkel said she will not cancel plans for a joint pipeline with Russia, but pledged to ensure Ukraine remains a transit country for Russian natural gas.

Ms Merkel told a Ukrainian business forum in Berlin that the pipeline would go ahead, but that Germany would “ensure Ukraine remains an important transit country”.

She noted that Germany could control how much fuel was pumped through the pipeline.

Ms Merkel said the latest crisis was “entirely the doing of the Russian president” and accused Moscow of violating a 2003 agreement guaranteeing free movement in the area.

“I want the Ukrainian soldiers released,” she said, adding that she would talk to Mr Putin at the forthcoming G20 meeting in Argentina.

“The Ukrainian side has asked us to act wisely. There is no military solution to these problems – we have to emphasise that,” Ms Merkel said.

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