A court in Crimea has ordered one of the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia at the weekend to be detained for two months, Russian media has reported.
The man faces a charge of illegally crossing Russian borders, which carries a sentence of up to six years in prison, Russian news agencies quoted an investigator as saying.
Russian border forces fired on and seized three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch strait, which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland, on Sunday. At least three sailors were wounded. Ukraine says they were travelling in shared waters on a routine passage to the Sea of Azov, which they have a right to patrol under a bilateral treaty.
The sailors are being be arraigned at a court in the city of Simferopol in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
The decision to launch prosecutions is likely to deepen the latest crisis between the two countries, which has provoked international condemnation and talk of fresh western sanctions against Moscow.
Russian state television broadcast interrogations with three of the sailors on Tuesday, eliciting confessions that appeared to be made under duress. “I recognise that the actions of the ships with military hardware of Ukraine’s navy had a provocative character,” one of the sailors, who identified himself as Vladimir Lisov, said. “I was carrying out an order.”
On Monday evening, the Ukrainian government declared martial law in some border regions and the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said there was an “extremely serious” threat of a Russian land invasion.
Russia has been building up its naval presence and seeking to restrict Ukrainian access since completing a bridge across the strait in May. The Ukrainian government released video footage of one of its ships being rammed by a Russian vessel. On Tuesday, two Russian police officers with automatic rifles stood on the pier where the Ukrainian vessels were moored in Kerch, Reuters reported. The vessels bore traces of collisions and big holes in their hulls.
Ukraine’s state security service said its intelligence officers were among the crew and that they were fulfilling counter-intelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy, in response to “psychological and physical pressure” from Russian spy services. It did not elaborate, but demanded that Russia stop such activity. Russia’s FSB intelligence agency said on Monday that the presence of intelligence officers on board the Ukrainian ships, was a “provocation” staged by Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 but the hostilities have largely subsided since a truce was signed in 2015.
Senior politicians from Germany, Austria, Poland and Estonia raised the possibility of new EU sanctions against Russia to punish it for the Kerch incident, which the west fears could ignite a wider conflict.
The United Nations secretary general urged Russia and Ukraine to use “maximum restraint” and avoid further escalation, his spokesman said in a statement.
Antonio Guterres said he was “greatly concerned” about the incident near the Crimea peninsula near the Kerch Strait, calling on “both parties to exercise maximum restraint and to take steps without delay to contain this incident and reduce tensions”.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Monday and stressed the need for de-escalation and dialogue, her spokesman said.