Ukraine is responsible for provoking a dispute with Russia in which the federation seized several Ukrainian ships on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday.
"This is a dirty game within the country (Ukraine)," Putin said, addressing an audience of business people and investors at VTB Bank's 'Russia Calling' investment forum in Moscow.
"It is a provocation initiated by the current authorities, and I think by the (Ukrainian) president, in light of the upcoming elections to be held next year... The incident in the Black Sea happened, it is a border incident, no more," he said. Ukraine had used the incident as a pretext to introduce martial law, he said.
Putin's comments come after Russia ramped up its dispute with Ukraine on Sunday when it seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their crew members in the Kerch Strait, a channel of water that links the Sea of Azov and Black Sea and one that's crucial for both nations' economies.
Ukraine said the incident was an "act of aggression," while Russia said the ships had entered its territorial waters illegally, an allegation Putin repeated. Both sides accuse the other of violating the conditions of a 2003 treaty that enshrines free access to the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.
Putin said Wednesday that Ukraine's action was "undoubtedly a provocation" designed to boost Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's popularity ratings ahead of a presidential election in March 2019.
Russia is still laboring under international sanctions for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and role (which it denies) in a pro-Russian uprising in the east of Ukraine the same year. Those sanctions, which target Russian individuals, entities and sectors separately, could be extended beyond the current expiry dates in 2019.
On Tuesday, Poroshenko warned that Russia would face serious consequences if it attacks Ukraine, telling NBC News that Moscow would pay a "huge price" if it did so.