No signs of US, allied ships heading to volatile Sea of Azov

Ukraine’s president urged NATO on Thursday to send warships into the Sea of Azov, but the U.S.-led alliance has shown no interest in forcing its way into waters under Russian control.

Ukraine’s request for more support comes ahead of a meeting Saturday between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an economic forum in Argentina.

Trump has threatened to cancel the meeting over Russia’s attack Sunday on three Ukrainian ships, but the talks are still scheduled.

President Petro Poroshenko, in an interview with the German Bild newspaper, said “we hope that in NATO, states are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security.”

Poroshenko, who declared martial law in parts of his country earlier this week, also said he is worried that Moscow is planning a new ground offensive to annex more Ukrainian territory.

On Sunday, Russian military forces fired upon three Ukrainian vessels attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait — a narrow passage that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Moscow seized the ships and captured about 23 sailors, marking a major escalation between two countries that have been at odds since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow blamed Ukraine for the clash, saying that the ships failed to provide proper transit notifications, which Kiev and Western states have dismissed as false. So far, the West has offered condemnations of Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships but made no move to sanction Russia.

It is unlikely NATO would agree to send ships into the Sea of Azov — a body of water defined in a bilateral agreement as internal to Russia and Ukraine, though some maritime law experts theorize that a small portion of the central sea could be considered international waters. Russia also controls access to Azov at the Kerch Strait, which means sending warships in a show of force could risk a dangerous escalation. There are also operational limits on what allied ships could be deployed to the Sea of Azov, which in many places is too shallow for larger vessels, such as destroyers, to operate.

However, the U.S. and NATO navies regularly patrol the Black Sea and could opt to increase those missions. Commercial aviation trackers also show that U.S. surveillance aircraft are a regular presence in the Black Sea and around the Kerch Strait.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other NATO foreign ministers will gather in Brussels for high-level talks, where they are expected to the discuss the clash at sea. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance was still assessing how to respond.

Poroshenko said the West should show solidarity with Ukraine if it wants to contain Russia under Putin.

“The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world,” Poroshenko said.