Russia returns seized ships to Ukraine ahead of Paris peace talks

Moscow turns up pressure on Kiev over ‘special status’ for separatist-held areas

A seized Ukrainian ship is towed by a Russian coast guard boat out of the port in Kerch, in Crimea. Photograph: Krym 24 via AP

A seized Ukrainian ship is towed by a Russian coast guard boat out of the port in Kerch, in Crimea. Photograph: Krym 24 via AP

 

Russia has returned three naval ships to Ukraine almost a year after seizing them and their 24 crewmen in the Black Sea, as small steps to ease tension between the neighbours continue ahead of planned peace talks next month in Paris.

The Ukrainian navy confirmed on Monday that the two gunboats and a tug were back under its control and heading home, 10 weeks after the crewmen were freed in a prisoner exchange between Kiev and Moscow.

Three Ukrainian sailors were injured on November 25th last year, when Russian ships fired on the vessels and detained them as they tried to cross from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov, which the two countries share.

Kiev said Russian border forces attacked its ships as they sailed away from the Azov Sea in a bid to prevent a clash, while Moscow accused Ukraine of flouting agreed rules on use of the Kerch Strait to provoke an international incident.

In May, the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to “immediately” release the Ukrainian sailors and their ships, but Moscow ignored the ruling and claimed the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the incident.

Fighting

After winning power in April, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Russia to return the vessels and crew and take steps to end five years of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region between government troops and Moscow-led separatists. The war has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.

Moscow did not link the release of the vessels to the UN court’s ruling or to peace efforts, but to investigators completing work on the ships as part of their prosecution of the sailors for illegally crossing Russia’s maritime border.

Following September’s prisoner swap and the recent withdrawal of forces from both sides of three sectors of the frontline, peace talks involving the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have been scheduled for December 9th.

French president Emmanuel Macron will host the summit, and the Kremlin said he spoke by telephone on Monday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“Both sides underlined that holding such talks should genuinely facilitate the swift and full realisation of the Minsk agreements,” the Kremlin said, referring to a 2015 deal that laid out steps towards establishing peace in Donbas.

The Kremlin said it was “essential” for Ukraine to take political measures stated in the agreement, “above all this relates to bringing into force a law on the special status of Donbas”.

The current law is due to expire at the end of the year without being implemented, however, and in an updated version Ukraine is unlikely to offer the separatists the broad autonomy and full legal amnesty that they and their Russian sponsors demand.