West backs up Ukraine as it tries to recover captured sailors
A Russian court has ordered several of the Ukrainian sailors who were captured by Russian coast-guard forces during a confrontation at sea off Crimea to be held in custody for two months.
The Nov. 27, 2018, rulings by the court in Simferopol, the capital of Russian-controlled Crimea, signaled the Kremlin's defiance of calls by Kyiv and the West to release two dozen crew members who were seized along with three Ukrainian Navy vessels following hours of hostility at sea two days earlier.
Raising the stakes after tensions spiked when Russian coast-guard craft rammed and fired on the Ukrainian boats on Nov. 25, 2018, the court was holding custody hearings for 12 of the crewmen. A Russian official said nine others would face hearings on Nov. 28, 2018.
So far, four have been ordered held in pretrial detention — which usually means custody behind bars in a jail — until Jan. 25, 2019. Under Russian law, detention terms can be extended by courts at the request of prosecutors, and it was not immediately clear when the sailors might face trial.
Officials identified the Ukrainians as Volodymyr Varemez, the captain of a navy tugboat that was rammed by a Russian vessel, and sailors Serhiy Tsybizov, Andriy Oprysko, and Viktor Bespalchenko.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported that the Ukrainians were charged with "illegal border crossing by a group of individuals acting in collusion, or by an organized group, or with the use of or the threat to use violence."
The court hearings came hours after Western leaders, speaking on Nov. 26, 2018, condemned what they called Russia's "outrageous" violation of Ukraine's sovereignty as well as international maritime treaties, and called on Moscow to immediately release the detainees.
Conflicting reports have put the number of Ukrainians detained at 23 and 24. The court rulings put them in a situation similar to that of several Ukrainians, including film director Oleh Sentsov, who are being held in Russian prisons and jails for what Kyiv and Western governments say are political reasons.
In the running confrontation off Crimea on Nov. 25, 2018, a Russian coast-guard vessel rammed the Ukrainian tugboat in an initial encounter, and a few hours later the Russian vessels opened fire before special forces stormed the three Ukrainian boats. Six Ukrainians were injured.
The hostilities injected yet more animus into the badly damaged relationship between Kyiv and Moscow, which seized Crimea in March 2014 and backs armed separatists in a simmering war that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since that April.
Those Russian actions, a response to the downfall of a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president who was pushed from power by the pro-European protest movement known as the Euromaidan, have also severely damaged its ties with the West.
The confrontation came days before Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with U.S. President Donald Trump ion the sidelines of a G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2018.
It followed months of growing tension over the waters in and around the Kerch Strait — the narrow body of water, now spanned by a bridge from Russia to Crimea, that is the only route for ships traveling between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has several ports, including Mariupol.
On Nov. 26, 2018, Ukraine declared martial law in 10 of its 27 regions — including all of those that border Russia or have coastlines — following what it called a Russian "act of aggression."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned "this aggressive Russian action," and called on Moscow to return the vessels and crews, and abide by Ukraine's "internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters."
Pompeo said both sides should "exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments" and said Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, should "engage directly to resolve this situation."
Speaking at a meeting of the UN Security Council on Nov. 26, 2018, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called the incident an "outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory" and a "reckless Russian escalation" of its conflict with Ukraine.
Britain's Deputy UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen said Russia "wants to consolidate its illegal annexation of Crimea and annex the Sea of Azov."
The international community will not accept this, he said, insisting that Russia "must not be allowed to rewrite history by establishing new realities on the ground."
Martial law will come into force on Nov. 28, 2018, in 10 Ukrainian regions that Poroshenko said are the most vulnerable to "aggression from Russia," and will be in place for 30 days.
The measure includes a partial mobilization of forces, a strengthening of Ukraine's air defenses, and other unspecified steps "to strengthen the counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and countersabotage regime."
Putin expressed "serious concern" over the Ukrainian decision in a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Kremlin said on Nov. 27, 2018.
The Russian leader also said he hoped "Berlin could influence the Ukrainian authorities to dissuade them from further reckless acts," a statement said.
"The imposition of martial law in various regions potentially could lead to the threat of an escalation of tension in the conflict region, in the southeast" of Ukraine, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later told reporters.
Hours before the court hearings, Russian state-run TV channel Rossia-24 showed images of several of the detained Ukrainians that were apparently recorded during interrogations by Russia's security services.
One of them parroted the version of events put forward by Russian authorities, saying, "The actions of the Ukrainian armed vessels in the Kerch Strait had a provocative character."
One of the detained appeared to be reading his statement. Russian law enforcement agencies frequently provide state media with footage of suspects being questioned under duress.
In Kyiv, Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) confirmed that a number of its officers were among those captured.
One of them was seriously wounded after a Russian aircraft fired two missiles at the Ukrainian boats, SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak said in a statement.
Calling Russia's capture of Ukrainian crews "unacceptable," the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, urged Russia to "immediately release" those detained and provide them with medical aid.
She also called on both sides to use "utmost restraint" to prevent the only live war in Europe from escalating.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia "has to understand that its actions have consequences. We will remain in contact with the Ukrainian government to underline our support."
Unlike other U.S. officials, who vocally backed Ukraine and criticized Russia, President Trump did not name either country in a brief response to a reporter's question about the confrontation.
"Either way, we don't like what's happening. And hopefully they'll get straightened out. I know Europe is not — they are not thrilled. They are working on it, too. We are all working on it together," Trump said.
Russia's acting UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, accused the Ukrainian Navy of "staging an aggressive provocation," which he claimed was aimed at drumming up public support for Poroshenko ahead of Ukraine's presidential election in March.
"They have no hope to remain in power otherwise," he said, while condemning Western leaders for condoning what he called their "puppets" in Kyiv.
"I want to warn you that the policy run by Kyiv in coordination with the EU and the U.S. of provoking conflict with Russia is fraught with most serious consequences," Polyansky said.
At the outset of the UN Security Council meeting on the incident, Russia suffered a setback after it sought to discuss the clash under an agenda item that described the incident as a violation of Russia's borders.
This was rejected in a procedural vote, with only China, Bolivia, and Kazakhstan siding with Russia. The Security Council then discussed the clash under terms laid out by Ukraine.
The naval confrontation took place as the Ukrainian vessels were approaching the Kerch Strait, the only access to the Sea of Azov.
A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters.
But Moscow has been asserting greater control since its takeover of Crimea — particularly since May 2018, when it opened a bridge linking the peninsula to Russian territory on the eastern side of the Kerch Strait.
"I have to emphasize that, according to the international law, Crimea and respective territorial waters are the Ukrainian territory temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation," Ukraine's UN Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko told the Security Council.
"Hence, there are no Russian borders in the area where the incident happened. I repeat — there are no Russian state borders around the Crimean Peninsula," he said.
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.
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