The German government has expressed concern about the military escalation in the Sea of Azov after Russia seized three Ukrainian navy ships off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula.
"The developments around the Sea of Azov are extremely worrying," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday morning during a visit to Spain. "It is not acceptable that there is a blockade by Russia there. All one can do is call for de-escalation from both sides and I hope that this call, which will surely not only come from Germany, will be followed. We must end this war happening in our neighborhood."
"We have observed the events in Ukraine and Russia with great concern," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a regular press conference. "We are in contact with both sides." He added that, based on what was known about the incident so far, there appeared to be "no justification" for Russia's use of military force.
Seibert also reaffirmed Germany's support for Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity, which includes shipping rights in the Kerch Strait. Free access to the Sea of Azov must be guaranteed." He also called on Russia to return the seized ships and release the servicemen who were on board.
Special meetings, routine meetings
In Brussels on Monday, Ukrainian envoys are to attend a special meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which has been called at the request of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also reiterated the alliance's commitment to Ukraine's "territorial integrity and sovereignty." The UN Security Council has convened an emergency meeting in New York, to take place later on Monday.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on the West to "calm down those in Ukraine who are trying to unleash a military hysteria to get political gains in connection with the planned elections," referring to polls expected to be held in Ukraine in March.
Poroshenko is trailing in the polls, and on Monday issued a decree introducing martial law, though it is subject to parliamentary approval.
"There is no doubt that it was done by blessing or, perhaps, even a direct order from the top," Lavrov said, according to the AP news agency.
A regular meeting of Foreign Ministry officials from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine is also coincidentally taking place in Berlin on Monday. The so-called Normandy Quartet, which is composed of those four countries, has been meeting regularly since 2014 to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine. "Of course, this will also be used to work through the current situation," a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said.
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Moscow has since lifted the blockade on the strait leading from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, with Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, saying the move had been a reaction to a border infringement. The German government said on Monday that it had not yet ascertained whether this was true.
Michael Roth, the German Foreign Ministry's minister of state for Europe, also commented on the crisis during an interview with German public radio on Monday morning. "The last thing we need is a further escalation in relations between Russia and Ukraine," he said.
"What is clear is that Russia under international law must guarantee unhindered access to the Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. It is committed to that," he added. "We have to see what exactly happened, but both sides must de-escalate now and shouldn't turn the spiral any further, which could lead to very serious consequences."
Omid Nouripour, of Germany's Greens, called on the EU to "immediately condemn Russian aggression." In a statement emailed to DW, the foreign policy spokesman said: "The calls for de-escalation are right, but should not obscure the fact that the Russian Federation is limiting the freedom of navigation in international waters militarily. There is no equal responsibility between Ukraine and Russia, because there is no equal power relationship."
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Struggle for influence
Alexander Neu of the socialist Left party took a very different view. "The European Union and NATO massively helped to fuel the Ukraine conflict in 2014," he told DW. "They want to bind Ukraine to the West and the result is the third theater of conflict, after Crimea and eastern Ukraine."
He said the efforts at dialogue in the Normandy Quartet were important, but added, "I can't imagine that Ukraine would pursue this course in the Sea of Azov without agreement or tolerance from Washington and Brussels."
"The fact is Ukraine is economically completely devastated, and is dependent on money from the West," Neu added. "The politics of Kyiv are being done in Kyiv's Western embassies."
He also said Russia had fulfilled its part of the Minsk protocols, and that the Ukrainian parliament had failed to vote in a law promising local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Roderich Kiesewetter, of the governing Christian Democratic Union, put the blame squarely on Russia. "The crisis in the Sea of Azov has been building for a long time and has not received enough international attention," he told DW in an email. "Russia is using that and is shooting darts ahead of the 2019 presidential election that will make Poroshenko look weak."
He added that if the ships aren't returned, the EU should impose further sanctions on Russia and consider supporting the Ukrainian coastguard. "Complaining about violations of the law and making declarations of solidarity won't be enough to get Russia to back down," he said.