Shipping traffic has resumed to and from Ukraine's ports on the Sea of Azov, says a Ukrainian minister while NATO allied foreign ministers meet to debate ways to dissuade Moscow from destabilising Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on board a coast guard ship in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, December 3, 2018.
A Ukrainian serviceman stands on board a coast guard ship in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, December 3, 2018. (AP)

Shipping traffic has resumed to and from Ukraine's ports on the Sea of Azov following a standoff with Russia, a Ukrainian minister said Tuesday.

Commercial ships were moving through the Kerch Strait linking the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan said.

Omelyan, who accused Russia last week of blocking Ukrainian cargo trying to pass through the strait, said Tuesday that the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol have been "partially unblocked" thanks to a "stern international response."

Russia, however, insisted that it never blocked vessels from sailing through the Kerch Strait and that any possible disruptions were linked to bad weather.

Meanwhile, Russia has taken centre-stage at NATO Tuesday as allied foreign ministers meet to debate ways to dissuade Moscow from destabilising Ukraine and encourage it to respect a landmark Cold-war era nuclear treaty.

NATO's support for Ukraine

Noting that Ukraine isn't a member of the alliance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies already "provide strong political support and strong practical support."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his NATO partners will hold talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin as Kiev seeks international support for its Black Sea confrontation with Russia.

Russian border guards fired on three Ukrainian navy vessels in the Black Sea near the Russia-occupied Crimea on Nov. 25. The vessels and the crews were captured.

Speaking before the meeting, Stoltenberg urged Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships and allow freedom of navigation and unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.

But it is unclear what more NATO would do beyond the sea patrols and air policing it already does in the region.

TRT World's Simon McGregor-Wood has more.

The US and its allies have condemned what they described as unjustified use of force by Russia and urged it to release the ships and their crews.

NATO allies have helped modernise Ukraine's armed forces and boosted their presence in the Black Sea over the last year, with more ships deployed in the region and more air policing. Three NATO allies on the Black Sea — Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey — are also taking individual measures.

NATO nations, individually and through the EU, have also imposed economic and other sanctions on Russia since it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, but there is little appetite among the allies to broaden those measures.

In any case, Russia remains defiant. Despite NATO launching its biggest military buildup in Europe since the Cold War, Russia's actions near the Sea of Azov last weekend demonstrate that the increased allied presence won't deter its aims in eastern Ukraine.

TRT World's Simon McGregor-Wood has more.

INF Treaty

Of similar concern to NATO is Russia's new SSC8 missile system. The US has shared intelligence evidence with its allies that the ground-fired cruise missile could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice.

Washington says the system contravenes the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (310-3,410 miles), and President Donald Trump is threatening to pull out of the bilateral pact.

"It's urgent that Russia ensures full compliance in a transparent and verifiable way, because the INF treaty is so important for our security," Stoltenberg told reporters Tuesday.

Some European allies suspect that Trump could give notice in coming months that the US is leaving the treaty. That would give Russia a notice period of six months to decide whether to comply.

Poroshenko vows to bring home sailors 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday met with families of Ukrainian sailors captured by Moscow, vowing to do everything in his power to bring them back home.

"For me there's nothing more important than getting them out," Poroshenko told relatives of some of the 24 seamen taken by Russia last month.

"All of Ukraine is now proud of your loved ones," he said during the emotional meeting in his office.

"Now all of Ukraine has united to support our sailors," the president added, hugging the captives' family members, some teary-eyed.

This handout picture taken and released by Ukrainian Presidential press-service in Kiev on December 4, 2018, shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (centre of the table) talking with relatives of the sailors arrested after the seizure of their navy vessels by Russia.
This handout picture taken and released by Ukrainian Presidential press-service in Kiev on December 4, 2018, shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (centre of the table) talking with relatives of the sailors arrested after the seizure of their navy vessels by Russia. (AFP)

Martial law

Poroshenko responded to the standoff by introducing martial law for 30 days, something Ukraine hadn't done even after Crimea's annexation and amid large-scale fighting with Russia-backed separatists in the east in 2014-2015.

As part of martial law, Ukraine has beefed up its forces on the border with Russia, called up reservists for training and barred entry to all Russian males aged between 16 and 60.

Some critics at home, including Poroshenko's main political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accused him of using the naval incident for political purposes before March's election.

But Poroshenko has pledged that martial law wouldn't interfere with the vote.

The Kremlin has called the naval incident a provocation intended to shore up Poroshenko's sagging popularity.

The lower house of Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved a statement Tuesday accusing the Ukrainian president of a "reckless and cynical attempt to change the situation in his favour" and a "desire to cling to power at any cost even at the threat of a full-scale war."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies