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Russia-Ukraine Tensions Flare After 3 Ukrainian Vessels Are Seized

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The geopolitical crisis in Ukraine is escalating. On Sunday, the Russian coast guard stopped and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels passing off the coast of Crimea. That, in turn, triggered protests in Ukraine. The U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency meeting about the situation today.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it took control over both sides of the Kerch Strait, a narrow bottleneck connecting the Black Sea to the much smaller Sea of Azov. In May, President Putin personally opened a bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting the Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland. The 12-mile-long Kerch bridge has become a symbol of Russia's claim to Crimea, which Ukraine and practically every other country in the world refuse to recognize.

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KIM: On Sunday, Russia dispatched warplanes to patrol the area after the Ukrainian navy tried to send three vessels through the Kerch Strait, meaning they'd have to pass under Putin's new bridge. Russia rammed one of the boats, opened fire on the other two and seized all three vessels along with their crews. There are conflicting reports that three or six Ukrainian crewmembers sustained injuries during the clash.

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UNIDENTIFIED FSB SPOKESMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: A spokesman for the FSB, Russia's federal security service, said the Ukrainian vessels were violating Russian territorial waters and had to be stopped.

Ukraine is already waging a low-level war against Kremlin-backed fighters in the eastern part of the country. After the naval clash, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a late-night meeting with top security officials in Kiev.

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PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Poroshenko said he would ask Parliament to approve the imposition of martial law because of what he called open Russian aggression. Martial law would allow an unpopular Poroshenko to postpone presidential elections in March.

Russian state television said Poroshenko provoked the incident in the Kerch Strait as a pretext to cancel the elections and possibly to scuttle an expected meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin later this week in Argentina. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.