BERLIN - Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko accused his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, of seeking to annex his entire country and called for NATO and Chancellor Angela Merkel to come to Kiev’s aid in the crisis.
Russia seized three Ukrainian Navy ships and their crews Sunday near the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, over what it said was their illegal entry into Russian waters — a charge Ukraine strongly refutes.
In interviews with Germany’s Bild newspaper and the Funke newspaper group on Thursday, Poroshenko rejected Russia’s charge that the vessels’ entry into the Sea of Azov — a body of water shared by Ukraine and Russia on which the Ukraine ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk sit — was a provocation.
“Don’t believe Putin’s lies,” he told Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling paper, comparing Russia’s protestations of innocence in the affair to Moscow’s 2014 denial that it had soldiers in Crimea even as they moved to annex it.
“Putin wants the old Russian empire back,” he said. “Crimea, Donbass, the whole country. As Russian tsar, as he sees himself, his empire can’t function without Ukraine. He sees us as his colony.”
Poroshenko also asked NATO members including Germany to send naval vessels to the Sea of Azov to back his country in the standoff with Russia.
“Germany is one of our closest allies, and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security,” he told Bild.
On Wednesday, Putin insisted that Russian forces were right to seize three Ukrainian ships last weekend.
But Poroshenko charged that Putin wants nothing less than to occupy the area and the only language he understands is the unity of the Western world.
“We cannot accept this aggressive policy of Russia. First it was Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now he wants the Sea of Azov.
“Germany, too, has to ask itself: What will Putin do next if we do not stop him?” he added.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Monday demanded Russia free the Ukrainian ships and sailors, warning Moscow that “its actions have consequences.”
The seizure of the navy vessels has driven tensions to their highest since 2015, when Moscow-backed rebels rose against the Kiev government in the eastern Donbass region, sparking a war that has killed tens of thousands.
Poroshenko urged Germany, the largest and wealthiest buyer of Moscow’s gas exports, to halt the building of an undersea gas pipeline that will allow Russia to supply Germany directly, cutting out Ukraine.
“We need a strong, resolute and clear reaction to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” he told Funke. “That also means stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.”
Germany regards the pipeline, which is being built by Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, as a private investment. But Merkel recently acknowledged its “political dimensions” and said Ukraine must continue to be a conduit for Russian gas sold to western Europe.
German officials said Wednesday that their position on the pipeline remained unchanged and that talk of tighter sanctions against Moscow, demanded by the United States and many European politicians, was “premature.”