After the Russian attack on Ukrainian vessels near the Azov Sea on November 25, Ukraine introduced martial law in ten oblasts of the country. Russia’s actions were condemned by the international community. Still, Russia tries to score points by using the Ukrainian sailors it has taken captive for propaganda purposes.
In the result of the incident, where around ten Russian border guard ships rammed into and fired on the three Ukrainian vessels, 23 Ukrainian sailors were taken into captivity, according to Kyiv. Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s representative to the UN, informed that six of the 23 sailors were injured; three out of them received serious injuries and one is in critical condition. Russia, however, claims that it has arrested 24 sailors and has confirmed only three wounded sailors, who Russian Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova said are undergoing treatment in a Kerch hospital.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor’s Office in Crimea has recognized the captured sailors as prisoners of war and reminded that they are protected by the Third Geneva Convention.
"In accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1949, Ukrainian crew members seized by the #Russia'n Federation are POWs. The MFA of #Ukraine coordinates with @ICRC in order to get them released", – @PavloKlimkin.#RussiaAttacksUkraine pic.twitter.com/qlOJ57yrNF
— MFA of Ukraine 🇺🇦 (@MFA_Ukraine) November 27, 2018
On November 26, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) published a video of three of the sailors “confessing” to have trespassed “Russian territorial waters,” the 12-mile zone from occupied Crimea that Russia considers its own after occupying the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. The sailors in the videos appear to be reciting a text given to them.
That is how journalist and human rights activist Halya Coynash describes the so-called confessions.
“While it is unclear what methods were applied to force such statements, the men are all evidently repeating what they have been ordered to say, and at least one looks as though he has either been physically ill-treated or drugged. Volodymyr Lisovy, the commander of one of the naval units, had clearly been given a text to read, and he rattles off nonsense about entering Russian territorial waters, and how they were aware that their actions were of a ‘provocative nature’.”
The so-called confessions immediately received feedback in Ukraine. The Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine stated that they treat them with understanding.
“In 2014 in Crimea, a part of our people had been in the detention facilities of the FSB and realizes clearly the pressure and the measures of the influence which the occupiers use during interrogations. Those are our military officers on the videos. We know them well. Now they are totally different and everyone can see the consequences of the crazy pressure,” the statement says, adding that the sailors were acting according to norms of international maritime law and valid agreements and that Ukraine was undertaking all means to free the sailors from captivity.
Later on, Ukraine’s Navy Chief, Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, passed a letter to the sailors through their lawyers, where he said he doesn’t blame them for the so-called confessions.
“It is normal to experience fear. The main thing is to believe in the power of your spirit, to retain your dignity and understand that the whole of Ukraine and the whole civilized world is with you. I am proud of each of you. Thank you for your loyalty to the Motherland. You should know that we do everything for your return to your families which were waiting to meet you,” the admiral ended his letter.
On 27 November, the so-called Kyiv court of Simferopol decided to arrest 12 of the soldiers until 25 January 2019.
Policemen and Russia’s Mobile Special Squad (OMON) came to the building of the court. Crimean Tatar activists inform that only Russian media were allowed to attend the hearing, despite it being announced as being open. Preventive measures will be chosen for the rest of the soldiers over the next two days.
All of the 12 were accused of illegally crossing the Russian border as a group (P.3, Art. 322 of Russia’s Criminal Code), which is punishable with up to six years in prison.
According to Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar journalist Osman Pashayev, as many as 12 Crimean Tatar lawyers have signed up to defend the Ukrainian sailors in court. The Crimean Tatars, the indigenous population of Crimea, have overwhelmingly rejected Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. Several dozen Crimean Tatars are currently either sentenced or under trial in what human rights activists say are politically motivated cases.
Journalist Anton Naumlyuk, who reports on politically motivated cases in occupied Crimea, informed that the commander of the Yany Kapu tugboat Oleh Melnichuk told his lawyer that he does plead guilty.
“We did not violate any border, I do not consider myself guilty.”
According to Melnichuk and other sailors, they experienced physical violence during the detention. Serhiy Tsibizov, a 21-year old sailor, also confirmed that he was under psychological pressure to provide a pre-determined testimony to his lawyer.
Roman Mokriak, commander of the cutter Berdiansk, also refused to answer the questions of the Russian FSB and “confess” to crimes he didn’t commit on video.
Both Russia and Ukraine have published their version of what happened on 25 November, RFE/RL writes.
According to Russia, a group of Ukrainian ships did not ask permission to enter the Kerch Strait, meaning passing under the Kerch bridge. The document published by the FSB claims that the Marine administration of the Kerch port had to be informed 48 and 24 hours prior to passage and receive confirmation 4 hours prior to passage, claiming that the Ukrainian ships had not done that. It says nothing of the Russian border service ship Don ramming through the Ukrainian tugboat Yany Kapu, despite a video of the episode being published by Russian sailors. It also makes no mention of the lethal fire of the Russians, speaking only of warning fire and three wounded.
Russia claims that these measures were needed because “the artillery installations were uncovered, raised at 45 degrees, and directed towards the ships and boats of the Russian Federation.” However, the photographs published by the FSB don’t show the two artillery cutters, depicting only the tugboat which usually doesn’t carry artillery. Belarusian journalist Franak Viačorka noted in twitter that the artillery marks on the ship “Berdiansk” show that Russians were aiming at the crew and not the engines.
This is Ukrainian ship ”Berdiansk” shot by Russia
We don’t know all the details but it seems Russians were shooting the cabin with people, not the engine as it apparently should be when you try to stop violators. pic.twitter.com/KEgKLaXMok
— Franak Viačorka (@franakviacorka) November 27, 2018
According to Ukraine, “for the sake of the safety of sea travel, the Ukrainian servicemen informed about their intentions aforehand, in accordance with international norms,” but despite this were met by four border patrol ships of the Russian Navy near Kerch. At this time, the Russian controllers of the ports of Kerch and Kavkaz did not answer the calls of the Ukrainian Navy. When the sailors approached the Kerch Strait, two Ka-52 Russian military helicopters appeared in the sky, followed by military jets.
At that time, the dry cargo ship appeared under the Kerch bridge. The Ukrainian ships waited to pass until the evening, then decided to return to Odesa, but the Russian border guards blocked the Ukrainian cutters and tugboat, forcing them to stop. The lethal fire, according to Ukrainian servicemen, was opened after they left the 12-mile zone, i.e. after the ships left the territorial waters of Crimea which Russia “annexed” together with the peninsula, in violation of internationa law.
How Russia uses Ukrainian political prisoners for propaganda purposes
The Russian state-controlled channels NTV and Rossiya came to the hearing immediately
“They are ready to tell the world about scary banderovtsy,” Nariman Dzhelyal, the deputy head of Mejlis commented, referring to a Russian propaganda myth of ultranationalist Ukrainians which is continuously transmitted to Russians since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014.
“As has been the case with most of Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners since 2014, these FSB ‘confessions’ are widely circulated on Russian state media, which, of course, never report the fact that in the vast majority of cases, the men later retract all such testimony as given under torture. Nor do they mention the many occasions where the men have been ‘convicted’ of charges that bore little or no relation to their ‘confessions’,” Coynash writes.
Televised “confessions” of the FSB were also instrumental in the imprisonment of nine Ukrainians accused of sabotage and espionage. However, the cases were so obviously fabricated that several of them fell apart in court.
There are all reasons to assume that Russia will fabricate the cases with the Ukrainian sailors and use them for its propaganda purposes.
Already on 26 November, at the emergency UN Security Council convened in response to Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian ships, Russia’s representative Dmitry Poliansky stated that Russia attacked the Ukrainian ships because it suspected they were carrying “radicals that wanted to blow up the Kerch bridge” Russia had scandalously built to the occupied peninsula.
According to Liubov Tsybulska, Head of Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, in the 24 hours after the attack, Kremlin state media had been spreading the following messages:
– Allegedly, Ukraine has not warned Russia about the ships’ movement beforehand and the ships seized performed dangerous maneuvers in the Russian waters;
– It is claimed that the Ukrainian boats received a warning that they chose to ignore;
– The sailors are lightly wounded and their lives are not under the threat;
– Ukraine has violated Russian territorial waters;
– This “provocation” is solely aimed at imposing martial law in Ukraine and, henceforth, canceling the elections with the President Petro Poroshenko being the main beneficiary;
– The alleged “provocation”, as well as the possible imposing of martial law, have to be coordinated with the USA.
According to Tsybulska, these messages aim to convince domestic and international audiences that it was Ukraine that violated international maritime law, not Russia; that Russia will not let go of occupied Crimea; that Ukraine is heavily dependent on the US, Russia’s archenemy; that Ukrainian politicians are ready to stage provocations to protect their position, reinforcing Ukraine’s image of the enemy for Russians.
This is nothing new; most of Russia’s roughly 70 Ukrainian political prisoners are falsely accused of crimes such as espionage, terrorism, and extremism in fabricated trials that aim:
- to persuade Russians that they at danger and need to be protected by a strong power from “spies,” “saboteurs,” and “terrorists.”
- to reinforce the Russian state media’s story of Ukraine as “Enemy #1” and switch Russia’s status from aggressor to victim in the time of the ongoing war.
- to make residents of occupied Crimea fear their own country, Ukraine.
- to create the illusion of effective work of the Russian security services.
Right to a fair trial in occupied Crimea
Recently, six Ukrainian human rights organizations released a report analyzing eight politically motivated trials in occupied Crimea. The research was done by local Crimean activists and lawyers.
The report confirms that Russia’s occupation courts in Crimea are actively involved in fabricating accusations, in which they violate not only international law, but Russian law as well. However, proving this is problematic, as Ukrainian bodies and NGOs can’t operate in the occupied peninsula, and the work of international missions is nearly impossible. The first mission of human rights organizations visited Crimea only in September 2018.
The report investigated the details of eight politically motivated cases and found the following problems:
- Russia violates Art. 64 of the Geneva Convention, which forbids the occupying state to extend its legislation to the territories it is occupying;
- Russia has created a judicial corps loyal to the occupation government;
- The court processes themselves are conducted with numerous violations of procedure – part of the hearings are closed to the public, administrations of the courts do not publish the information of the dates of the hearings in time, impose artificial restrictions for visitors during the hearings.
- The principle of the equality of the sides is violated, meaning that the judges assume the defendants are guilty, deny the lawyers defending the accused of procedures allowed for the prosecution, like holding independent examinations and questioning the witnesses accusing the defendants.
- It is usual practice for the witnesses of the accusation to give nearly identical testimonies.
Thanks to these violations of principles of a fair trial, courts in occupied Crimea have essentially turned into a conveyor belt of politically motivated sentences against Ukrainian citizens and Crimean Tatars.
The Ukrainian Navy after the occupation of Crimea
What one should keep in mind analyzing the situation is that the Ukrainian Navy suffered significant material and moral losses after Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014.
Before the occupation, it numbered over 15,000 servicemen and commanded 5 corvettes, 1 frigate, 3 minesweepers, 2 landing ships, 1 submarine, 49 auxiliary ships, and 35 aircrafts.
After the Russian intervention, only one-third of the personnel remained faithful to Ukraine. One-third resigned and the rest chose the side of the occupant. 51 vessels were lost.
In 2014, a video of Ukrainian sailors refused to turn to Russia was shared on the Internet. It turned out that one of them has now been taken captive after the Russian attack near Kerch.
The losses didn’t happen overnight. At the start of the Russian intervention in February 2014, the Ukrainian troops located in Crimea did not fight back and had only defended their units. Russians blocked the Ukrainian military vessels and land objects in Crimea, voicing an ultimatum either to surrender or to choose their side. Then, only the newly appointed rear admiral Denys Berezovskyi betrayed the oath. On 19 March 2014, Russian forces seized the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy. By 21 March, almost all the vessels were seized or surrendered voluntarily. Some servicemen had resisted until the very last moment.
Later, Ukrainian film director Kostiantyn Kliatskin devoted his documentary Crimea As It Was to the officers, soldiers, and seamen who did not betray their oath of loyalty to the people of Ukraine and their first-hand accounts about Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
A list of the sailors