International court orders Russia to release detained Ukrainian sailors
Russia has ignored calls from the EU and Ukraine to release the sailors
An international maritime court has ordered Russia to release 24 sailors captured from three Ukrainian military vessels during a standoff between Moscow and Kiev near the annexed Crimean peninsula in November.
The Ukrainian servicemen were detained and their vessels confiscated on November 25 after they were fired on and intercepted by the Russian Navy as they attempted to navigate through a body of water connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg ordered Russia to immediately release the sailors and vessels adding that both officials in Moscow and Kiev must refrain taking actions that could exacerbate the situation. A panel of 20 judges ruled 19-1 in favour of Ukraine with the exception of the Russian representative.
“The Tribunal notes that any action affecting the immunity of warships is capable of causing serious harm to the dignity and sovereignty of a state and has the potential to undermine its national security,” court President Jin-Hyun Paik said, according to Reuters.
Russia’s FSB security service said it had been forced to act in November because the ships – two small Ukrainian armoured artillery vessels and a tug boat – had entered its territorial waters illegally.
The incident followed a long period of rising tensions between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov coinciding with Moscow’s construction of the Kerch Bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea.
The Kremlin orchestrated the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in a move that saw ties sour overnight between Russia and the West, which imposed economic sanctions in response.
Both Russian and Ukraine, for which the Kerch Strait is a vital entryway into the Black Sea for major ports near Rostov-on-Don and Mariupol, had complained of harassment from the others’ military in the months leading up to Russia’s capture of the sailors in November. A bilateral treaty dating back to 2004 gives both countries the right to use the Sea of Azov.
At the time, Russian foreign policy observers dismissed claims that the capture was orchestrated to bolster President Vladimir Putin’s slumping trust and approval ratings. They instead pointed to Ukraine’s arrest of a Russian ship called Nord and its crew as a cause for the sharp rise in tensions.
The international court was established to settle maritime disputes by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which both Ukraine and Russia are signatories. However, has no means of enforcing its decisions.
“The Tribunal’s order is a clear signal to Russia that it cannot violate international law with impunity,” Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Olena Zerkal said on Facebook, adding she expected Russia to comply with the order quickly.
Ukraine’s newly inaugurated president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said if the Kremlin releases the Ukrainian sailors and ships it could be the first signal from the Russian leadership of its readiness to end the conflict with Ukraine.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it had not taken part in the hearings, adding it intended to defend its point of view that the arbitration lacked the jurisdiction to consider the Kerch incident.
United States President Donald Trump cited the flare-up in the Sea of Azov in a tweet cancelling a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina last November.
The White House said that the sailors’ release was a precondition for any future meeting between the leaders.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have escalated in recent months coinciding with the election of Mr Zelenskiy. Moscow is distributing Russian passports to residents of breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and has vowed to halt the export of coal and oil products beginning June 1.
The United States announced last week that it was making preparations to apply economic sanctions to European companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that will allow Russian gas to Western Europe exports to bypass Ukraine, which will lose out on lucrative transit fees.
Updated: May 26, 2019 06:20 PM