In November 2018, Russia attacked three Ukrainian warships heading to their port in the Azov Sea and took 24 sailors as POWs. The UN Maritime Tribunal ruled Russia must release them, and the deadline for the release expired on 25 June.
— International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (@ITLOS_TIDM) May 25, 2019
Defying the Tribunal’s decision, Russia had made no moves to unconditionally free the sailors, who, along with the over 100 Ukrainian political prisoners of the Kremlin and over 100 prisoners in Donbas, are being illegally dept behind bars. However, their return to Ukraine may have been part of a secret deal between the West and Russia in exchange for the unconditional return of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which took place between 24-26 June, the Ukrainian media outlet European Pravda reported, citing its sources.
- Read more about Russia’s return to PACE:
- PACE destroys sanctions mechanism, allowing return of Russian delegation
- Seven delegations join in demarche as PACE lifts all sanctions on Russian delegation
According to the outlet, even before Ukrainian President Zelenskyy came to power one month ago, a non-public plan existed between the West and Russia, in which Russia’s return of the captured seamen and ships was supposed to be part of a wider agreement, despite the fact that Moscow was supposed to release the sailors according to the decision of the UN Maritime Tribunal.
Moscow had traded preferences for itself for complying with the decision of the Tribunal, European Pravda writes.
According to the plan, the West was to return Russia’s powers in PACE without any exceptions. In return, Russia should have elaborated a scheme to free the sailors and allowed the Council of Europe’s monitoring mission to occupied Crimea. And, of course, Moscow should have resumed payments to the budget of the Council of Europe, which it already owes EUR 70 mn.
According to European Pravda’s sources, Ukrainian diplomats received signals about this plan at the end of the presidency of former president Petro Poroshenko, but it appeared as an ultimatum only last month, during newly-elected President Zelenskyy’s visits to France and Germany.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron did not receive Zelenskyy’s agreement to such a plan.
Between the two rounds of voting for Russia’s unconditional return to PACE, on 25 June Russia indeed sent a diplomatic note in which it asked for Ukraine to provide written guarantees that Ukraine will continue the criminal persecution of the sailors according to Russian law, to which the Ukrainian MFA answered that Russia’s proposals are unacceptable and urged Russia to unconditionally release the sailors as required by the UN Tribunal.
It is because of this note that a public spat surfaced between President Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. Summoning an urgent briefing, Zelenskyy accused Klimkin of not agreeing the answer to the Russian note with the President’s Administration.
This, European Pravda writes, is evidence of Russia acting upon the plan agreed with the West, and evidence of Zelenskyy agreeing to play along with some elements of it.
The Russian proposal itself is problematic because, in the words of Pavlo Klimkin, Russia demanded Ukraine to accept that the Ukrainian sailors could have committed a crime; urged Ukraine to accept the legality of the court proceedings against them according to Russian law; and invited Ukraine to bow before Russia’s Criminal Code, indirectly recognizing the occupation of Crimea.
Zelenskyy’s spat with Klimkin and indirect criticism of the answer suggest that Zelenskyy was entertaining using some elements of this agreement between Russia and the West. The agreement itself is a disturbing testimony of the first agreement about Ukraine behind Ukraine’s back, even if it is not acknowledged publicly.
During Poroshenko’s presidency, the principle “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” was the cornerstone of foreign policy, and all of Ukraine’s partners agreed to this, including the Germans, French, and Americans. Kyiv knew about all the negotiations of its partners with Putin and Lavrov and OK’d the key signals which were voiced on them. This limited the West in their actions, they did not like this – but everyone kept to the agreements, European Pravda writes.
It is now undeniable: this principle is no longer unquestioned. The formalities that worked under the previous president have been rejected with the change of power in Ukraine – and the accession of a president who is neither experienced in foreign policy nor expresses a desire to get actively involved in it.