Russia Military Tests 'Readiness' of Troops Positioned Near Ukraine

The Russian military has ensured its troops stationed near the border with Ukraine were ready for action amid heated tensions between the two countries.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that it had "begun testing the readiness of formations and military units of the Southern Military District" ahead of the new school years, which was set to start on Saturday. The district includes a part of the country that borders western Ukraine as well as the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed during political unrest in 2014 as part of a referendum that has received limited international recognition.

The test—which included "more than 40 formations and military units," including the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla and elements of the aerial and air defense forces—took place as the dispute between Moscow and Kiev came to a head in the wake of Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels said to have transgressed Russian maritime territory. The United States and its NATO allies have backed Ukraine in the row, calling on Moscow to release the ships immediately.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claimed he had "serious grounds to believe Russia is ready to follow with a ground attack," citing "evidence collected by our intelligence."

Russian servicemen of the Southern Military District train at a base in the Moscow-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia, also claimed by Georgia. The district also includes areas bordering Ukraine, the Black Sea and the annexed territory of Crimea. Russian Ministry of Defense

Poroshenko came to office in June 2014, following protests that ousted his pro-Kremlin predecessor, President Viktor Yanukovych. Amid these demonstrations, which were supported by the U.S., Russian troops were sent across the border into Crimea, a move decried by a number of Western countries as an invasion. Moscow defended its actions by arguing that it was protecting the region's ethnic Russian majority, and Crimea was officially annexed as the result of a local vote disputed by the U.S. and Western allies.

During this same period, a separatist insurgency emerged in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, where Russia has been accused of sending troops and equipment to back the pro-Moscow rebels. The U.S. has, in turn, sent military advisers and equipment to assist the Ukrainian armed forces, which have been joined by a number of nationalist militias mobilized by the government. Though deadly fighting continues on the Donbas frontlines, the situation has largely been locked in a stalemate for the past four years.

In a clear engagement between armed forces, however, the elements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet opened fire Sunday on Ukraine's Gyurza-M-class gunboats Berdyansk and Nikopol and the Yana Kapa tugboat, and rammed the latter after they allegedly refused requests to stop and entered territory claimed by Russia in the Kerch Strait. The waterway is located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and is controlled by Russia.

Russia has said that three Ukrainian servicemen were lightly wounded in the attack, and a Russian court has officially placed half of the 24 detained Ukrainian sailors—including Navy Lieutenant Roman Mokryuk, commander of Ukrainian gunboat Berdyansk—under arrest for two months, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.

That same day, the federal Russian Security Service (FSB) released a list of weapons allegedly equipped to the Ukrainian ships, as well as documents suggesting their journey was supposed to be made in secret and that the sailors were aware of Russian protocols in passing the Kerch Strait. The FSB claimed that, during the encounter, "the ships of the Ukrainian Navy were put on alert: the artillery units were uncovered, artillery barrels raised at a 45 degree angle and directed towards ships and boats of the Russian Federation," a violation of international law.

A Ukrainian soldier patrols aboard a military boat moored on the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, Ukraine, on November 27. Three Ukrainian navy vessels were seized off the coast of Crimea by Russian forces, which fired on and boarded Kiev’s ships after several tense hours of confrontation. SEGA VOLSKII/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine responded to the incident by imposing martial law in areas that border Russia and the breakaway republic of Transnistria, as protests raged in the capital. More than 100 demonstrators gathered Sunday around the Russian embassy in Kiev, setting fire to a cart owned by the diplomatic building.

The State Department called Monday "on both parties to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments," and said that the U.S. "supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters, as well as the right of its vessels to traverse international waters."

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he "is greatly concerned over the 25 November incident near the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea at the approach to the Kerch Strait and involving Ukrainian and Russian vessels. He underlines the immediate need to avoid any risk of further escalation of the situation."

According to the statement, Guterres "underscores the need to fully respect the rights and obligations of all concerned parties under relevant international instruments. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, within its internationally recognized borders, in accordance with relevant General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, must also be fully respected."