MARIUPOL: Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (second left) visits paramilitary troopers taking part in a  drill near this Azov Sea port. According to Russian state media, Moscow intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months.—AFP
MARIUPOL: Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (second left) visits paramilitary troopers taking part in a drill near this Azov Sea port. According to Russian state media, Moscow intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months.—AFP

MOSCOW: Russia insisted on Tuesday that it has the right to restrict foreign naval ships’ movement off Crimea, rejecting international criticism amid Western worries about a Russian troops buildup near Ukraine.

Ukraine last week protested the Russian move to close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November. The US also aired its concern on Monday, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying this represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine.

Price noted that the move “is particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders.” The European Union also voiced concern about the troop buildup and the navigation restrictions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov charged that the restrictions on foreign naval ships were in line with international agreements, arguing that its common practice to limit areas where military drills are held. He emphasised in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.

In a separate move, Russia on Tuesday also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea for five days starting on Tuesday. The Russian military is holding massive Black Sea maneuvers this week, involving more than 20 warships and dozens of aircraft.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that such airspace closures are common international practice.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 after the country’s former Russia-friendly president was driven from power by protests. Moscow then threw its weight behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the conflict there has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks with increasing violations of a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and a massive Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border. Moscow has rejected Ukraine and Western concerns, arguing that it’s free to deploy its forces and charging that they don’t threaten anyone.

But at the same time, Moscow sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, noting recent statements by Ukrainian military officers who held the door open for an offensive. The Kremlin said that Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday accused Ukraine of trying to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and lashed out at the US and Nato for what he described as provocative actions in the Black Sea area.

The US and its Nato allies have regularly sent navy ships to the Black Sea and the US flew strategic bombers over Ukraine, vexing Moscow. However, the US reversed a planned deployment of two destroyers in the Black Sea earlier this month amid the heightening tensions.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021

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