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Russia Launches Naval Exercises in Black Sea Amid Escalating Standoff with Ukraine

One day after Russia accused Ukraine of attempted incursions into Crimea, Kiev put its military on high-alert and the Kremlin announced the start of war games in the Black Sea.

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One day after Russia accused Ukraine of attempted incursions across the de facto border into Crimea, the territory annexed by Moscow in 2014, Kiev put its military on high alert and the Kremlin announced the start of war games in the Black Sea, raising fears of a return to open war in the country for the first time in more than a year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with members of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss mounting tensions with Kiev in Crimea. According to the Kremlin’s press service, the Russian leader pledged to take countermeasures “along the land border, offshore, and in Crimean airspace” against Ukraine, which he accused on Wednesday of sending intelligence agents into Crimea to carry out terrorist acts and provoke a conflict with Moscow. The Russian Defense Ministry also announced that it will hold naval exercises in the Black Sea — off the coast of Crimea — to practice countering underwater attacks by “saboteurs.”

The Russian drills — which will last from August 11 to 13 — are part of the already planned Caucasus-2016 naval exercises by the Russian Defense Ministry in the region, but their timing has left Ukrainian officials worried that the heightened military activity could escalate quickly into a direct conflict with Moscow.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered his country’s army to be on combat alert near Crimea and along the front line in eastern Ukraine, which has seen an uptick in fighting in recent weeks. Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border guards, told reporters on Thursday that Russia has massed troops near Crimea’s northern border with mainland Ukraine.

“These troops are coming with more modern equipment and there are air assault units,” Slobodyan said during a briefing in Kiev.

The chain of events that have resulted in the current standoff remain murky. On Wednesday, the FSB announced that two different incidents had taken place: a raid on a terror cell in Crimea over the weekend that left one FSB officer and an accused Ukrainian intelligence officer dead, and an exchange of gunfire across the Crimean border that left one Russian soldier dead. Kiev, however, has denied any involvement in a terrorist plot or in a firefight with the Russian military, calling the FSB’s claims “false information” and accusing the Kremlin of using the scenario as a pretext for war.

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt also disputed Moscow’s version of events, saying on Twitter that “Russia has a record of frequently levying false accusations at Ukraine to deflect attention from its own illegal actions.”

Adding to the confusion on the ground, Valery Kondratyuk, the head of intelligence at Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, said during a meeting with Poroshenko on Thursday that a skirmish had taken place over the weekend in Crimea between the Russian military and border guards in Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB — not with Ukrainian forces as alleged by the Russian agency.

Kiev took further measures on Thursday, with Vadim Troyan, the acting head of Ukraine’s National Police Force, announcing that a kidnapping investigation has been launched into the disappearance of Evgeny Panov, the alleged Ukrainian intelligence officer the FSB has in custody. The security service says that Panov tried to infiltrate Crimea in order to carry out a series of terrorist attacks. According to reports in Ukrainian media, Panov is a former volunteer in the Ukrainian armed forces who fought in the war in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists. His family says that he went missing over the weekend and his brother reportedly believes he was kidnapped.

Amid the growing accusations, insults, and aggressive rhetoric from Moscow and Kiev, Poroshenko instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrange a phone conversation with Putin to discuss the mounting tensions. However, it remains to be seen how receptive the Russian leader will be to talking with his Ukrainian counterpart. During comments to the press on Wednesday, Putin accused Ukraine of resorting to terrorism and that continuing in internationally backed talks on the war in eastern Ukraine — slated to pick up in a few weeks during the G20 summit in China — were “pointless.”

Both the European Union and the United States have tied the decision to remove economic sanctions on Russia to the success of the Minsk deal — the peace process brokered in the capital of Belarus in February 2015. However, both Moscow and Kiev have become frustrated with the stalled and often violated agreement. Russia has accused the Ukrainian government of refusing to live up to the terms of the truce, exchanging fire in eastern Ukraine, and denying elections in the separatist held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev has rebuffed the charges and insisted that Russia has no interest in observing the peace deal or preserving the status quo.

Photo credit: YURI LASHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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