Russia Detains Ukrainian Sailors Over Kerch Strait Incident

Detained Ukrainian naval vessels (image courtesy FSB Press Service)

Published Nov 27, 2018 5:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

Russia's state security agency has detained 24 Ukrainian sailors in connection with its seizure of three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Kerch Strait, and twelve will be arrested for at least two months on charges of "breaching Russia's borders," according to state media. Three are still receiving treatment for "soft tissue injuries" at a hospital in Russian-occupied Crimea, and they are expected to recover.

Russian forces fired upon, rammed and seized a Ukrainian Navy tug and two Ukrainian gunboats on Sunday as the vessels approached the Kerch Strait. The narrow waterway connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, and a bilateral treaty ensures that Ukrainian vessels have the freedom to navigate through it. Russia denies that this freedom exists, and it asserts that the Strait lies within the Russian Federation's sovereign "state border." This category of maritime demarcation is not described in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets standards for maritime claims and provides a legal structure for freedom of navigation.

In response to the incident, Ukraine's parliament declared a 30-day period of martial law, which gives President Petro Poroshenko enhanced authority to respond in the event of a potential Russian ground attack. Western governments have called for calm and for talks between Moscow and Kiev. 

"Reports that Russian vessels rammed and fired on the Ukrainian ships, injuring Ukrainian crewmen, before seizing three vessels, represent a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law," said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement Monday. "We call on both parties to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments."

In an interview Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump told the Washington Post that he is still waiting for a full report on the incident, and said that he might cancel a planned weekend meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in protest. “Maybe I won’t have the meeting. Maybe I won’t even have the meeting," Trump said. “I don’t like that aggression.”

Several European political leaders have suggested that the incident might prompt the EU to strengthen existing sanctions on Russia. Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs, Austrian foreign minister and current EU president Karin Kneissl, and Polish deputy foreign minister Bartosz Cichocki have all suggested that new sanctions might be appropriate, depending upon the facts. 

In a press conference Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert suggested that EU nations may also wish to reconsider their support for Gazprom's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project the Trump administration opposes. Nauert said that the pipeline "helps the Russian government," and noted that it has been a topic of discussion between the U.S. and its European allies.