The Kremlin is warning that Ukraine's declaration of martial law over Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian ships might trigger a flare-up in hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
CBN News has learned that a recent religious decision involving the Orthodox Church may be partially to blame for the incident.
Putin Flexing His Muscles?
Russia and Ukraine are pointing fingers at each other for this weekend's naval confrontation in the Kerch Strait – the waterway between Russia's mainland and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
On Sunday, Russian border guards rammed into and opened fire on three Ukrainian Navy vessels traveling from the Black Sea toward a Ukrainian port. The Russians then seized the ships and their crews.
"I believe that it is actually a desire for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to show who is in control of Crimea," said Steve Weber, CBN's regional director for Russia and Ukraine.
But Weber believes the Russian action was also a response to the decision by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to take Orthodox parishes in Ukraine away from the Russian patriarch in Moscow.
"It could be connected to what happened just a few weeks ago when this Bartholomew in Istanbul, with the stroke of a pen, took 12,000 – a third of all the churches under the Moscow patriarch – and gave them to the Ukrainian patriarch," Weber reasoned.
"This created anger in Putin," he noted. "It's like, you lost power over a third of his parishes."
Putin used Moscow's dominance over the 300 million person Orthodox communion to try to control Orthodox believers in Ukraine and boost his image as a leader. Weber says losing the Ukrainian churches was like kicking sand into Putin's face, and frees Ukraine even more from the clutches of Moscow.
Bartholomew's decision combined with Sunday's ramming incident could reignite the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Fearing war, the Ukrainian Parliament has imposed martial law for 30 days, something Ukraine didn't do even when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 or sent troops into eastern Ukraine. Russia says it is sending an anti-aircraft missile system into Crimea.
US, Allies Condemn Russia's Actions
The United States and its allies condemned the Russian seizure at the United Nations. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told the security council, "Sunday's outrageous violation of sovereign territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior that includes the purported annexation of Crimea and abuses against countless Ukrainians in Crimea."
President Trump was scheduled to meet with Putin next week, but some sources say the president may cancel the meeting over the seizure of the Ukrainian ships.
"We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.