GP Insights # 193, 23 November 2019
Russian authorities have returned three Ukrainian military ships that were seized last year. The captured fleet included a tug boat and two small armored boat. Ukrainian authorities claim the ships were returned in a very bad and unusable condition. The ships were seized during the Kerch Strait conflict in the Black Sea. Russia captured the boats citing their entry into its territorial boundaries. Ukraine has claimed the Black Sea to be free and open waters. In May this year, even the UN had ruled Russia to return the boats; only to be ignored by Russia. The captured crew was released in a prisoner swap in September this year.
What is the background?
Kerch Strait is the only outlet in Azov Sea where Ukraine has major ports. The strait separates mainland Russia from Crimea and rest of the Ukraine. The ships were captured after they attempted to gain entry into Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The strait is also important as it is the only route to reach Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. They were en routre from Odessa to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov when Russian troops opened fire and rammed into the vessels before capturing them. The 24-member crew was also taken prisoners and put on trial for illegally crossing the border. The crew was returned to Ukraine in a prisoner swap this year but the case against them still remains open in Russia.
What does it mean?
The release of ships comes before a major peace summit between Ukraine and Russia to be held on December 9. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pushed for a top level meeting with the presence of his French and German counterparts in the summit. This will be the highest level talks carried out since 2016. The release can be seen as important in resolving the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia. The returning of crew and subsequently the ships also can be seen as a confidence building measure between the two belligerent neighbours. The five-year long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has already resulted in over five thousand causalities.