- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2018

Top American and Canadian officials on Friday called for the release of several Ukrainian sailors currently being detained by Russia, demanding Moscow cease its aggressive actions in Eastern Europe.

Officials from both countries “expressed their condemnation of Russia’s harassment in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait,” where three Ukrainian naval vessels were boarded by Russian forces and their crews arrested, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Friday.

“We call on Russia to release these sailors,” she said, during a press conference at the State Department, alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan. Her comments during annual bilateral security talks between Washington and Ottawa.

Mr. Mattis did not address the Russian detention of the Ukrainian sailors during his remarks Friday. But the Pentagon chief did reiterate Washington’s pledge to “stand with our European allies against the full scope of Russian malign influence, to include Moscow’s recent, brazen contempt of international law in the Kerch Strait and its action against the Ukrainian people.”

Half of the 24 Ukrainian sailors detained off the captures vessels have been sentenced to two months in prison, for illegally entering Russian waters. The remaining sailors are set to appear in court later this week. Kiev says the attacks were unprovoked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly the blame for the incident on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, saying the leader had orchestrated the entire provocation to bolster his chances at reelection next year.

Moscow’s efforts to expand its military presence in the Baltics has ratcheted up tensions in the region not seen since the end of World War II, said Vice. Adm. Andrew Lewis, head of the Navy’s recently reestablished 2nd fleet.

Moscow has perfected the unique talent at escalating tensions with the U.S. and regional neighbors in eastern Europe, without tipping the situation toward all-out war, the three-star admiral said during a speech in Washington last month.

“The Russians are adept at staying at that region. … They operate pretty well at that level,” Adm. Lewis said, noting the U.S. has not been aggressive enough to counteract Russia’s hostile action. “We have been heretofore been reactive, not proactive,” the 2nd Fleet commander added.

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