Putin is tightening his grip on Ukraine

KIEV — Ukraines Christmas markets may be in full swing, but the season isnt feeling particularly festive this year. Our thoughts are with the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were attacked and captured by Russia last month in the Sea of Azov, and the Kremlins attempts to destabilize the region.

With a level of contempt and disregard for international law with which the world is sadly all too familiar, Russia has sought to present our captured servicemen as “criminals.” It blocked consular access, a direct violation of international laws, and gave us no information of their welfare for 11 days.

But no crime has taken place.

Our ships were navigating sea routes where freedom of navigation is guaranteed by international maritime law. This is not an opinion but an indisputable fact. The only “crime” to have taken place was that perpetrated by Russian forces, which fired on and then seized Ukrainian ships and their crews in open waters.

Russias jaw-dropping lack of respect for the rules that govern international waters is a significant and dangerous challenge to all law abiding countries.

With this latest attack, Putin effectively has his hands around Ukraines throat and is tightening his grip

Sadly, it is in keeping with what weve come to expect from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In May last year, the Kremlin opened a 12-mile bridge over the Kerch Straits, the waterway connecting occupied Crimea with the Russian mainland. Putin is now using it as strategic tool to block navigation on a vitally important sea route.

This is a major threat for Ukraine, as our Sea of Azov ports, including Mariupol and Berdyansk, are responsible for an important portion of our international trade.

With this latest attack, Putin effectively has his hands around Ukraines throat and is tightening his grip. His ultimate goal is to suffocate and silence us; to see us fail so that he can subsume our country back into a new, emboldened Russian Empire.

The Ukrainian command ship Donbass is seen moored as workers build new terminal at the Port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, eastern Ukraine on December 2, 2018 | Genya Svilov/AFP via Getty Images

But this assault is first and foremost an attack on the Western values that we, Ukrainians, so wholeheartedly share. That Ukrainian people have resolutely chosen to look westward — to the EU, to NATO, to the transatlantic community— is anathema to Putin. He cannot countenance or accept this, which is why he will do whatever he can to destroy Ukraine.

The added benefit, for Putin, is that by keeping the spotlight on us he directs attention away from his significant domestic challenges.

I am thankful for the support that the international community has shown Ukraine, including requests, at the highest diplomatic levels, for the Kremlin to release our captured crew and vessels.

We cannot be deterred by Russias typically cynical response to these approaches, and must continue to apply pressure at every level to ensure that, at a minimum, the Kremlin respects international law and ensures our Ukrainian prisoners are treated humanely.

We must also pay attention to the greater Russian threat, which remains hybrid and includes disinformation, social unrest and election meddling. The stakes are increasingly high: As Ukraine prepares for elections next year, Putin will be looking to destabilize, delegitimize and disrupt the process at every possible turn.

Time and again, Ukraine has sought to use the rules of international law to resolve disputes. Russia, by contrast, continues to choose violence, denial and obfuscation.

It is our firm belief that the highly volatile and dangerous situation in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait can only be deescalated through solidarity among countries with a shared respect for international law.

For the safety of all of our nations, I urge the international community to maintain its collective pressure on Russia and to demand the immediate release of Ukraines captured servicemen.

Pavlo Klimkin is minister for foreign affairs of Ukraine.

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