Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that Russia's attack upon and seizure of three Ukrainian ships violated international law and shows that Moscow can't be trusted.
Mattis made his comments on Ukraine to reporters following remarks to a closed-door Senate session on a proposed resolution that would cut off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen's civil war.
"It was obviously a flagrant violation of international law," he said of the seizure Sunday of two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat and the 24 personnel aboard in the Kerch Strait of the Black Sea.
"It was contempt, really, for the traditional ways of settling these types of concerns. It just shows that Russia cannot be counted on right now to keep its word," Mattis said. "It was, I think, a cavalier use of a force that injured Ukrainian sailors."
In his first comments on Sunday's incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin charged that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instigated the confrontation to boost his standing in upcoming elections.
Poroshenko has said that at least six of the 24 detained personnel from the three ships were wounded by Russian fire.
At an investment forum in Moscow, Putin said the Kerch Strait incident was "without doubt a provocation" orchestrated by Poroshenko, Russian state media reported.
"It was organized by the president [Poroshenko] ahead of the elections" scheduled for March, he said, adding that Poroshenko is "is in fifth place, ratings-wise, and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law."
Putin charged that the Ukrainian ships "intruded into Russian territorial waters and did not answer" repeated calls from the Russian coast guard to leave the area. "What were they supposed to do?"
On Tuesday, judges in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, said all 24 of the captured Ukrainians are being held on criminal charges, pending trial.
On Wednesday, Poroshenko donned camouflage utilities to tour a military training center and warned that Russia is building up forces in the eastern Ukraine region controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
"It's important to keep our powder dry and be ready at any moment to push back the aggressor," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.