Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have told Vladimir Putin to pull his forces back after the Ukrainian navy threatened to shoot Russian FSB boats harassing ships near the Kerch Strait.
The European leaders’ demands came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a summit with his Russian counterpart and a new ceasefire.
French President Macron hosted Zelensky for talks in Paris – later joined by German Chancellor Merkel by video conference – in a show of support for his pro-Western government in the face of Moscow’s assertive stance.
The tensions have escalated seven years after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea by Moscow and declaration of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists prompted the worst decline in ties between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Putin and Zelensky last met face-to-face in Paris in December 2019 for meeting hosted by Macron, and also attended by Merkel, which was credited with helping to reduce tensions in subsequent months.
The standoff took place between three Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class artillery boats and five unidentified vessels belonging to Russia‘s FSB coast guard service overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, according to Black Sea News editor Andrii Klymenko who monitors military activity in the area.
Russian vessels began making ‘provocative manoeuvres’ around the Ukrainian boats and only backed off after they threatened to open fire, Mr Klymenko reported. The incident happened within 25 miles of the Kerch Strait.
It comes amid a massive buildup of Russian troops along the border that observers fear could top 115,000 by Monday, sparking fears of an invasion amid calls from Joe Biden, NATO and European leaders to ‘de-escalate’.
The Kerch incident has echoes of a 2018 clash between Ukraine and Russia in the strait which led to three Ukrainian ships being captured and Russia blocking the strait using a container ship, sparking a diplomatic crisis.
Just hours after the latest incident took place, Russia announced a blockade of waters near the strait – but denied that it would affect the strait itself, which it said remains open.
Three Ukrainian artillery boats threatened to shoot five FSB coast guard vessels near the Kerch Strait overnight between April 14 and 15, observers said, after the Russian ships made ‘provocative manoeuvres’
A photo believed to have been taken on board one of the Ukrainian vessels on the night in question shows a sailor on deck with what appears to be a cargo vessel in the background
The Ukrainian vessels were Gyurza-M-class artillery boats (file image) taking part in a routine patrol when they were confronted by the Russian coast guard
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and his wife Olena (second left) were in Paris today where they met with President Macron and wife Brigette in a show of unity
Macron and Zelensky spoke in person while Angela Merkel joined by video conference to discuss the escalating tensions with Russia along the country’s eastern border
Russian fighter jet tails American spy plane over the Pacific Ocean
Russia scrambled a fighter jet to escort an American spy plane that was flying close to its border over the Pacific Ocean, the ministry of defence said.
Footage taken from the cockpit of a Russian MiG-31 fighter showed an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flying close to the Kamchatka peninsula.
The region is 4,500 miles from where Russian forces are massing on the border of Ukraine, but is another sign of growing tensions between the two superpowers.
American spy plane filmed from the cockpit of a Russian MiG
‘Russian airspace control over the Pacific Ocean detected an air target approaching the Russian border,’ it was reported.
‘In order to identify and escort her, a MiG-31 fighter took off from an airfield in the Kamchatka region.
‘The crew quickly identified the aerial target as the US Air Force RC-135 strategic reconnaissance aircraft.’
The report said the plane was prevented from violating Russian air space.
‘From 21:00 on April 24 until 21:00 on October 31, passage through the territorial sea of the Russian Federation for foreign military ships and other state vessels will be halted,’ the defence ministry said, without explaining further.
The restrictions will affect the western tip of Crimea, the peninsula’s southern coastline from Sevastopol to Hurzuf, and a ‘rectangle’ off the Kerch peninsula near the Opuksky Nature Reserve, the ministry said.
It came after Joe Biden slapped sanctions on Moscow for what he said were Russian attempts to interfere in US elections and a large hack of US government data.
Putin is now weighing up how to respond, the Kremlin said today.
As the diplomatic tussle between the US and Russia plays out, Ukrainian president Vlodomyr Zelensky met with European allies in Paris as a show of unity.
Macron received Zelensky for lunch in Paris and both men were to talk later with Chancellor Angela Merkel by video link.
Following the summit, Zelensky said Macron had offered him support and that he was ‘hopeful’ of four-way peace talks including Putin – saying he is ready to speak with the Russian president.
He said that a meeting between Biden and Putin could help to resolve some issues, but added that it would not make sense for the two to have substantive conversations about the security of his country without him being present.
He added that the trio had discussed Ukraine’s membership of NATO, but did not say whether the alliance is any closer to welcoming the country as a member – a move that would be seen by Putin as a provocation.
Zelensky’s meeting with the leaders of France and Germany, who have been mediators in the conflict since 2015, comes as Ukraine accuses Russia of threatening to destroy it.
‘They are openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood,’ Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a press conference with counterparts from the fellow former Soviet countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
‘The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer,’ he warned.
But in a sign that tensions might be easing today, Putin’s spokesman said there had been less fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east – which is one of the pretexts for the build-up of Russia’s forces.
But, Peskov added, Moscow will not lower its guard yet and will continue monitoring the situation closely.
Meanwhile Britain’s ambassador to Moscow arrived at the Russian foreign ministry for talks on Friday after London summoned the Russian ambassador, the RIA news agency reported, amid a further deterioration in bilateral ties.
Britain’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it had summoned Russia’s envoy to express its concern about ‘malign behaviour’ by Moscow and to show London’s support for sanctions announced earlier in the day by Biden.
The British embassy told RIA the meeting at the foreign ministry had been planned in advance.
It comes as Ukraine has warned that it could unilaterally build a nuclear arsenal if NATO refuses to permit it membership of the Western military alliance.
Putin is continuing to build up his forced on the border with Ukraine, as the government warns troops numbers could swell to 110,000 with 7,000 tanks and other vehicles in support
Russian mobile artillery (left) and support vehicles continue to move to the front lines, videos published today showed
Russian tanks are seen moving towards the border region on the back of a train filmed in the Krasnodar region of Russia today
It was formerly a nuclear state with 176 ICBMs and 44 strategic bombers after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and agreed to eliminate its weaponry in return for legally-binding security guarantees from Britain, the US and Russia.
‘We must do everything possible to ensure that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will not attack us tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,’ said Andriy Melnik, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany.
‘The only possibility for this is for Ukraine to finally become a NATO member.
‘If Ukraine were a NATO member in 2014… it would never have come to the annexation and this terrible war in the east,’ he said.
He warned bluntly: ‘Ukraine has no other choice – either we are part of an alliance such as NATO and are doing our part to make this Europe stronger, or we have the only option – to arm by ourselves, and maybe think about nuclear status again.
‘How else can we guarantee our defence?’
In a plea for the West to bolster its security guarantees he said: ‘Almost 90,000 (Russian) servicemen, as well as their armed systems were pulled to the border and to the region of occupied Crimea and Donbas.
‘This deployment is not just muscle flexing…
‘We are dealing with the largest troop movement in Russia since the Second World War.’
The latest incident echoes a confrontation between the Russian and Ukrainian navies in the Kerch Strait in 2018 which saw Russian vessels ram their Ukrainian counterparts and take them captive
The 2018 incident led to Russia blocking the Kerch Strait with a large container vessel, sparking a diplomatic crisis
Russian state-owned Sputnik news agency said in a report that Ukraine ‘likely retains the technical capability to build a nuclear arsenal’.
But it said: ‘The state of its civilian nuclear power programme leaves something to be desired.
‘Last year, Ukrainian nuclear industry workers sounded the alarm about the threat of ‘another Chernobyl’ citing a ‘dire situation’ which they said was ‘taking shape in the country’s nuclear energy sector’ due to a lack of oversight, safety permits, and funds.’
Kyiv warned strongly over the threat of the Azov Sea tension escalating into a major incident.
‘Russia continues to violate international law,’ said the Ukrainian navy
‘Russia’s FSB made yet another attempt to hinder the lawful actions of a Ukrainian Navy boat group on combat duty.
‘The Ukrainian Navy’s tactical boat group proceeded with its mission despite Russian provocations and deliberate efforts to restrict free navigation.’
On Thursday Ukraine issued a protest over Russia’s decision to bar foreign warships and state vessels from parts of the Black Sea in the direction of the Kerch Strait from next week until October.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said: ‘Such actions by the Russian Federation are another attempt, in violation of the norms and principles of international law, at usurping (our) sovereign rights as a littoral state.
‘It is Ukraine that has the right to regulate navigation in these parts of the Black Sea.’
There were claims that satellite images show Russia has installed in Crimea S-400 anti-aircraft systems with a range of 250 miles, according to Information Navigator.
This allows ‘the Russian occupation forces to control almost all the airspace of the Black Sea’.
Meanwhile, new videos show continued Russian troop movements east of the Ukrainian border.
Russian troops march during preparations for the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow, a military show of strength that marks Stalin’s victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War
Russian troops rehearse ahead of the annual Victory Day parade due to take place in Moscow on May 9, which will mark the 76th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany
Servicemen carry a Russian national flag and a Victory banner during rehearsals for the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow