Russia returns Ukrainian naval ships it highjacked a year ago

Black rectangles on the hull of the Berdiansk artillery boat can be seen where bullet and rocket holes were after the attack. 17 November 2019, Kerch, occupied Crimea. Screenshot: Youtube/Zvezda 

Crimea, Hybrid War

Russia is returning three Ukrainian naval vessels it captured a year ago. The handover is taking place prior to the Normandy Four meeting, scheduled for 9 December 2019. The much-anticipated meeting will include Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. The belated handover fulfills last May’s ruling of a UN maritime tribunal to return the vessels. Russia denies the return is related to the Normandy Four summit, positioning it as a gesture of goodwill. However, their curious timing in finally complying with the UN ruling appears to be nothing less than self-serving and a means of strengthening their position at the upcoming negotiations.

The first reports on the handover of the Ukrainian vessels surfaced on 16 November. The Russian online newspaper Kommersant, citing unnamed sources, reported on Moscow’s decision to return the ships. An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed the report.

On 17 November, the press service of the Crimean office of Russian FSB’s border service informed Russian media that three Ukrainian vessels would be returned to Ukraine the following day. Yet, it was another 24 hours before Ukrainian officials and the navy command were able to officially confirm the event.

“Today, on November 18, the process of the return of Ukrainian [artillery] boats, the Nikopol, the Berdyansk, and the Yany Kapu tugboat has started in the Black Sea. Ukrainian tugboats the Titan, the Haydamaky, and the Sapfir search and rescue ship, along with the boats and the tugboat have started moving toward mainland Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Navy posted on Facebook.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that the handover of the vessels does not end the dispute on Russia’s violation of the immunity of the Ukrainian Navy ships and their crews.

“After a thorough check-up and examination, it will be clear in what condition the warships were handed over, and whether any equipment and documentation were confiscated from them,” MFA says.

How Russia seized the vessels

Last year, on 25 November 2018, the Ukrainian Navy sent the Yany Kapu tugboat, escorted by two artillery boats, the Berdiansk and the Nikopol, from Odesa to round the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula and proceed through the Kerch Strait to Mariupol. This was the same route as the Ukrainian Navy ships, Donbas and Korets, had followed to the same destination two months earlier, in September 2018.

Read more: Ukrainian warships break Russian defacto blockade in Azov Sea to create naval base

However, this time Russian border guards and military attacked the Ukrainian vessels. The Russian border guard ship Don rammed into the Yany Kapu tugboat, damaging its main engine, hull, and guard railing:

Russia went on to block sea traffic at the Kerch Bridge. They deployed several more seacrafts, as well as K-52 combat helicopters and Su-25 fighter jets.

After the blockage, Ukrainian ships tried to return to Odesa, but shortly after they crossed the 12-nautical-mile baseline and reached neutral waters, Russian ships opened fire on the Ukrainian seacrafts, wounding several sailors. Following the live-fire attack, two of the vessels, the Yany Kapu tugboat and the Berdiansk artillery boat, lost engines and were seized by Russian special forces. They were towed by Russian tugboats. The third seacraft, Nikopol, was surrounded by Russian ships and forced to follow their course.

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Court ruling and Russia’s denial

In May 2019, the UN maritime tribunal (ITLOS) ruled that Russia must “immediately” release 24 Ukrainian service members and three Ukrainian vessels, giving Russia one month to implement the ruling. Russian President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the case of the 24 Ukrainians did not fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal. Russia refused to recognize the Ukrainian sailors as prisoners of war. Moreover, they rejected the tribunal’s order and tried the Ukrainians under criminal charges for alleged border violations.

In September 2019, Russia returned the Ukrainian sailors as part of the 35-for-35 prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. No reason was given when Russia then took several more weeks to return the captured vessels. Albeit, in doing so they fulfilled the second part of the ITLOS ruling.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin denies that the return is related to the UN court’s ruling last May. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov explicitly stated: “This [handover of the ships] isn’t connected in any way with the international tribunal’s [decision]. There isn’t any connection and it cannot be.”

Russia stands behind the narrative that freeing the sailors in September and now handing over the hijacked vessels are not because of a UN tribunal ruling — rather a grand gesture of goodwill.

Hiding evidence: Firearm damage removed

On 17 November, the Russian Defense Ministry TV channel Zvezda broadcast footage showing the Ukrainian ships being tugged out of the Kerch Bay:

The damage caused by the ramming of the Yany Kapu is clearly visible. Meanwhile, holes in the hull of the Berdiansk caused by the live-fire assault appear to have been removed — black rectangles can be seen disguising the ruptures:

Normandy Four negotiations

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko has claimed that the handover of the seized Ukrainian ships is not related to the 9 December Normandy Four summit, for which Russia has confirmed participation. The summit is intended for leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France to negotiate issues related to the war in the Donbas — ongoing since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2014. The last Normandy Four meeting was held in Berlin in October 2016.

Since Russia keeps laying down additional demands of Ukraine before the summit can be held, the negotiations may be postponed yet again. For example, on 4 November, Russia demanded Ukraine agree that the summit’s outcome document will be available in advance.

Other delays are in the offing. Russia now claims they want full military disengagement in the Donbas — an intention voiced previously by Zelenskyy, now prior to the summit, parroted by Putin. Yet, when discussions on withdrawal took place earlier this year, Putin would not comply. Zelenskyy is steadfast that troops be withdrawn, with Russian forces doing the same, to stop military actions and casualties. Putin has now positioned himself as the one to insist on disengagement.

Editor’s Note

The upshot is that Russia, in returning the highjacked Ukrainian ships under the pretence of goodwill, has manipulated the scenario and strengthened its negotiating position at Normandy Four. French President Emanuel Macron has already referred to the return as a gesture that “contributes to strengthening the trust in the dialogue between Russia and Ukraine.”

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Edited by Vidan Clube

Edited by: Vidan Clube

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