Jens Stoltenberg added to a chorus of statements from Western institutions and governments urging restraint between Moscow and Kiev after Russian coastguards fired on and seized two naval vessels and a tugboat in the Sea of Azov early Sunday, prompting Ukraine to declare martial law while the Kremlin has claimed it was dangerously provoked, Efe news reported.
"There is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel," the Norwegian politician told reporters in Brussels following an extraordinary meeting between the trans-Atlantic alliance and Ukraine's commission. "So we call on Russia to release immediately the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized yesterday."
"And we call for calm and restraint," he added.
NATO has consistently backed Ukraine with regards to the country's ongoing conflict with allegedly Russian-backed rebels in the east as well as against the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimea.
"Russia's ongoing militarisation of Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, poses further threats to Ukraine's independence. And undermines the stability of the broader region," the NATO chief said.
Early Sunday, two Ukrainian gunboats, "Berdyansk" and "Nikopol", and a tugboat were seized as the made their way from Odessa in the Black Sea towards the port city of Mariupol in the Azov Sea, a journey that skirts the Crimean Peninsula, a territory that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow recently constructed a bridge over the strait, connecting mainland Russia to the Crimea. At the time of the incident, a Russian cargo ship blocked the passage underneath the $3.69 billion construction
Eastern Ukraine has been the theater of a civil war that since 2014 has killed around 10,000 people, according to the UN.
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