Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian naval vessels only underscores Kiev’s vulnerability, particularly at sea.
KIEV, Ukraine — With 24 of his sailors and three of his warships held captive by Russia after a confrontation on Sunday in waters near Crimea, the commander of Ukraine’s tiny navy declared that Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin was “the plague of the 21st century” and vowed that it must be stopped.
But the commander was not suggesting that Ukraine fight to the last man. “Of course, we can’t beat them,” the commander, Vice Adm. Ihor Voronchenko, acknowledged.
Instead, Ukraine has proposed that Turkey, a member of NATO, step into the breach and seal off the Bosporus, one of the world’s busiest waterways, and that the alliance send a convoy into the Sea of Azov.
The chances of any of that happening are near zero, but the Ukrainian commander’s Hail Mary proposal highlights the extent to which the country is dependent on outside help as it struggles to hold its own as a sovereign state in the face of a hostile Kremlin.
The episode has also put a spotlight on a vexing question that has dogged Ukraine’s efforts to break out of Moscow’s orbit since its 2014 revolution: Just how far is the West willing to go to help a country addled by corruption but, for all its problems, offers its citizens liberties, including real elections and a free press, that Mr. Putin has ground to dust in Russia?
Nearly a week after Russia opened fire on Ukrainian naval vessels passing from the Black Sea to the adjoining Sea of Azov, there is little agreement on what triggered the sudden escalation in a four-year-long confrontation between the two neighbors: a power play by Moscow or just a minor “border incident, nothing more,” as Mr. Putin said.
What is not in dispute, though, is that Ukraine is now in a curious state of high anxiety. Officials are warning that the country could well face a major war with Russia while insisting that a declaration of martial law will have no effect on ordinary life.
Tensions were raised further on Friday when Russia said it was transferring the three Ukrainian ship captains to Moscow and Ukraine said all Russian men between the ages of 16 and 60 would be barred from entering the country.
Yet, for the capital of a country now on a war footing, Kiev seems bizarrely calm. The only tangible signs of panic are the anxious phone calls and email messages from friends and relatives living abroad and wild accounts in the Russian news media of Ukrainians digging trenches and stocking food.
“People I haven’t heard from in years are contacting me in a panic to ask whether I am safe,” said Andrew Bain, a retired United States Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and now runs a business in the Ukranian capital. “It is fairly comical given how calm Kiev is.”
Ukraine’s desperate pleas for help, however, have put its friends abroad in an agonizing dilemma: how to support the country without stoking an even wider conflict or playing into Ukraine’s labyrinthine political feuds before the presidential election in March.

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