KIEV, Ukraine (Dispatches) — Shipping traffic has resumed to and from Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov following a standoff with Russia, a Ukrainian minister said Tuesday.
Commercial ships were moving through the Kerch Strait linking the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan said.
Omelyan, who accused Russia last week of blocking Ukrainian cargo trying to pass through the strait, said Tuesday that the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol have been "partially unblocked” thanks to a "stern international response.”
Russia, however, insisted that it never blocked vessels from sailing through the Kerch Strait and that any possible disruptions were linked to bad weather.
Ukraine sent its vessels on a mission to sail from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov in line with a 2003 treaty with Russia that allowed their ships free passage through the Kerch Strait. But Russia charged that the Ukrainian boats entered its territorial waters without permission.
NATO foreign ministers were meeting with Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Speaking before the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships and allow freedom of navigation and unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko responded to the standoff by introducing martial law for 30 days, something Ukraine hadn’t done even after Crimea’s annexation and amid large-scale fighting with pro-Russian separatists in the east in 2014-2015.
As part of martial law, Ukraine has beefed up its forces on the border with Russia, called up reservists for training and barred entry to all Russian males aged between 16 and 60.
Some critics at home, including Poroshenko’s main political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accused him of using the naval incident for political purposes before March’s election. But Poroshenko has pledged that martial law wouldn’t interfere with the vote.
The Kremlin has called the naval incident a provocation intended to shore up Poroshenko’s sagging popularity.
The lower house of Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved a statement Tuesday accusing the Ukrainian president of a "reckless and cynical attempt to change the situation in his favor” and a "desire to cling to power at any cost even at the threat of a full-scale war.”