On 25 November, in an escalation of tensions which had been developing since summer 2018, three Ukrainian ships were seized by the Russian coast guard near the Kerch Strait.
According to Viktor Muzhenko, Ukraine’s Chief of Staff, speaking at an extraordinary NSDC session at midnight 26 November, the three boats – tugboat Yany Kapu and two small armored gunboats, Berdiansk and Nikopol, departed from their permanent base in Odesa on 23 November and headed to Mariupol, where Ukraine had in September established a naval base, breaking a de-facto blockade of the Azov Sea which Russia had started imposing following the construction of a bridge to the occupied Crimea from the Taman peninsula.
On 24 November, the Ukrainian fleet was informed that the Kerch Strait was closed; however, this information was unconfirmed by the international marine traffic control center in Spain. On 25 November near 4:00, Ukraine inquired twice into the possibility and timeframe of passing through the Kerch Strait but received no answer from the traffic controller in Kerch. The Ukrainian ships continued their movement but received a message from the controller to enter the waiting zone where the procedure for passing under the bridge will be determined.
At 11:00 on 25 November, the Ukrainian ships were told that the Kerch Strait is closed due to a cargo ship being on shore, this information was confirmed by the Spanish traffic controller. However, passage through the strait was in fact not closed, as between 13:40-13:50 EET, the Ukrainian fleet observed one Russian ship and two cutters passing under the Kerch bridge. The Ukrainian ships received no more information and at 17:00 decided to return to the permanent base in Odesa. As the ships left the waiting zone and headed towards Odesa, 40 km to the southeast of Kerch and 13-14 miles from the Crimean coast, the Ukrainian ships were shot at by the Russian ships and connection with them was lost.
A video (at top of page) apparently filmed by the Russian sailors shows the moment when the Russian rescue intelligence ship “Don” rams into the Ukrainian tugboat Yany Kapu.
After the Russian forces shot at the cutter “Berdiansk” and the tugboat, a Russian spetsnaz group from the border guard ship “Don.” Voronchenko said that according to available information, the Ukrainian sailors did not weapons but resisted the spetsnaz physically.
He also said that according to the agreement between Ukraine and Russia, the waters of the Azov Sea are the internal waters of both countries and military and trade ships can pass through the Kerch Strait freely. But the Ukrainian side foresaw the actions of the Russian side and gave warning that the Ukrainian ships will be passing through the 12-mile internal water zone and asked for a place for anchorage, received the corresponding signal from the Kerch traffic controller and headed to that location to wait.
The Ukrainian outlet Liga.net has obtained audio intercepts from the Ukrainian ships recorded during the incident, published on 25 November. We offer an abridged transcript of them.
Russians: Immediately stop movement, otherwise I will open fire. Over.
Ukrainians: Nine-nine-five. (unclear) Four nine. Came out of the 12-mile zone. (garbled) Weapons not used.
Ukrainians: (Unclear) I am schooner 1-3-6. 1-3-5. Desna. Am moving along the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea. I have no intention of using force. There is no armed aggression. Am not using weapons. I do not use artillery system. Am acting in accordance with the agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the Russian state border and cooperation – [interference] who doesn’t jump is a moskal – on using the Kerch Strait. I am schooner one seven five [this is the callsign of Berdiansk – ed]. Over.
How many wounded do you have, over.
Ukrainians: I need help, I need help. Mayday, mayday. These geographical coordinates: 44 51 0. 36 23 4. Mayday, Mayday. We need help. We need help.
Ukrainians: We have wounded. We need help.
Ukrainians: We have lying wounded, I need help.
Russians: hands up. Everyone on the ship, hands up. If you have weapons or hands under clothes we will open fire to kill.
Russians: How many wounded do you have, over.
Ukrainians: I need help, I need help. Mayday, mayday. These geographical coordinates: 44 51 0. 36 23 4. We need help, we need help.
Russians: As I understand, you are stopping. You have heavy caliber machine guns on board. Turn on the lights on the deck, exit with your hands up.