Russia Security Says Ukraine Warship Poses 'Threat' Sailing Toward Disputed Waters

Russia's top security agency has warned that a Ukrainian warship headed toward a disputed strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov had ignored commands to reverse course as a crisis brews on the land border between the two Eastern European nations.

A notice posted by Russia's Federal Security Services, or FSB, which also oversees the nation's border control, issued a notice Thursday stating that Ukrainian Navy command ship Donbas was sailing "in the waters of the Sea of ​​Azov towards the Kerch Strait," a maritime chokepoint under Russian control since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula amid political unrest in Ukraine in 2014.

The international referendum surrounding the annexation has been disputed internationally and Ukraine has never recognized Russia's authority, leading to incidents such as a November 2018 clash that resulted in the capture of three Ukrainian Navy vessels by the FSB Coast Guard.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv are mounting once again as a result of a Russian military buildup along Ukraine's border with Russia, areas of which have been the control of Moscow-aligned rebels since 2014.

The Donbas, named after the eastern Ukrainian region at the center of the seven-year conflict, was said by the FSB on Wednesday to have left port at Mariupol at 9:12 a.m. local time, and sailed toward the Kerch Strait without having submitted an application to do so as per an October 2015 law imposed by the Russian Ministry of Transportation.

At 1:45 p.m. local time, a Russian FSB Coast Guard ship accompanying the Ukrainian vessel "warned of the need to comply with Russian legislation." The Ukrainian side replied that the warship "does not plan to follow through the Kerch Strait."

But the FSB said the Donbas has yet to change its course.

"At present, the Donbass is located at a distance of 18 nautical miles to the Kerch Strait, it does not comply with the requirement to change the course," the FSB notice said. "These actions pose a threat to the safety of navigation."

A follow-up notice later added that the ship "does not respond to requests" and that the actions of its crew "are regarded as provocative and endangering the safety of navigation."

Ukraine, Navy, command, ship, Donbas, November, 2018
The Ukrainian command ship Donbas is seen moored as workers build new terminal at the Port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, eastern Ukraine on December 2, 2018, following a spike in tensions after a maritime clash a week earlier that saw Russia detain three Ukrainian Navy vessels off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while the Ukrainian Navy later told Newsweek that the Donbas "is currently under the control of the Joint Forces Operation and is currently the search and rescue ship Ukrainian Navy."

The state-run Tass Russian News Agency cited an unnamed maritime source saying that dozens of ships were stalled at the entrance to the Kerch Strait, a traffic jam that was apparent in real-time data provided by online portal Maritime Tracker.

News of the incident came as President Joe Biden spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss the U.S. leader's recent virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the simmering tensions in the region.

A readout released by Zelensky said that Biden has informed him on the results of the U.S.-Russia summit, and the ongoing situation on the Ukraine-Russia border. "We discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine," the Ukrainian president wrote.

A later White House account said that "President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia's aggressive actions towards Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of a further military intervention."

Biden was said to have "reaffirmed the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity" and "made clear that the United States and its allies and partners are committed to the principle of 'no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine,' while both men "called on Russia to de-escalate tensions and agreed that diplomacy is the best way to make meaningful progress on conflict resolution."

"President Biden underscored the readiness of the United States to engage in support of confidence-building measures to advance the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in support of the Normandy Format," the readout added.

Biden had earlier said that sending military troops directly into Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack was "not on the table."

Russian officials have dismissed concerns that the Russian military was planning to stage any imminent invasion of Ukraine, and have instead alleged it was Kyiv that was plotting provocations through its solicitation of Western military support. Putin has demanded that the U.S.-led NATO military alliance cancel Ukraine's bid for membership and remove weapons systems from countries near Russia's borders.

"It is not Russia that is transferring its armed forces to countries with which it does not have a common border," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said during a press conference earlier Wednesday. "NATO has expanded to the Russian borders, conducts exercises in the territories bordering with us, increases military contingents in neighboring countries, endlessly makes aggressive statements defining our country as an 'enemy,' a 'threat.' We carry out actions on our territory. We have the right to do so. Russia is a sovereign, independent state."

Russia's top defense official, Chief of Staff General Staff Valery Gerasimov further warned during a briefing of foreign military attaches that "the already tense situation" in eastern Ukraine "is further deteriorating" as Ukraine deployed U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkey-made combat drones.

"Any provocations by the Ukrainian authorities to settle the Donbass difficulties militarily will be thwarted," he asserted.

This article has been updated to include additional details of the call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as a statement by the Ukrainian Navy.