Almost one year ago, on November 25, 2018, two small Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class gunboats, together with a tug, attempted to cross from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine controls two major port cities: Mariupol and Berdyansk. The Ukrainian convoy was stopped and attacked by Russian forces. One of the gunboats, the Berdyansk was hit multiple times as the Ukrainians, who did not return fire, were attempting a retreat. The boats were boarded and all 24 Ukrainian service members (some were wounded, though none fatally) were imprisoned in the Federal Security Service’s Lefortovo prison, in Moscow; they were questioned and accused of crossing the Russian border illegally, despite the existence of a 2003 Russo-Ukrainian treaty defining the Kerch Strait as a joint sovereignty “internal” waterway. The seized ships were impounded in Kerch (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29, 2018).
Ukraine and the international community protested. United States President Donald Trump canceled a summit with President Vladimir Putin, planned for December 1, 2018, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, demanding the sailors be freed. But Moscow dug in its heels (see EDM, December 3, 2018). Apparently, the Kremlin considered the small Ukrainian naval contingent to be part of a major Western-led conspiracy to undermine Russian control of Crimea and the Sea of Azov or possibly to sabotage the Kerch Strait bridge to Crimea, which Russia built after 2014, at great expense. The FSB interrogated the sailors but apparently was unable to produce much concrete evidence to warrant a public show trial. On September 7, 2019, the 24 sailors were returned to Ukraine as part of a larger Russo-Ukrainian prisoner exchange. On November 18, 2019, the naval branch of the FSB Border Guard Service handed over the Ukrainian ships—the two gunboats and the tug—to the Ukrainian Navy in the international waters of the Black Sea, off the Crimean coast. By November 21, Ukrainian salvage ships pulled the released ships into the port of Ochakiv. The hand-off was described in Moscow as a good-will gesture (Interfax, November 21).
Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are planning to hold a summit in Paris, on December 9, in the so-called Normandy framework. There, the four leaders will discuss ways to promote a permanent peaceful solution of the Donbas conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Parisian Normandy summit will be the first direct meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected on April 21, 2019, trouncing the incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Though Moscow officially insisted the return of the ships was not connected with the coming Paris summit—purportedly, the FSB investigators simply did not need them anymore to continue to build their case—Paris and Berlin, who play a mediating role in the Normandy format process, nevertheless saluted the Russian decision as a positive step in the right direction. But quickly, the situation turned sour. The Ukrainian Navy complained the Russians stripped or looted the returned ships, removing sailors’ personal items, cooking and sanitation equipment, and anything of value (Interfax, November 20). The FSB angrily rejected those Ukrainian allegations and produced footage of the ships being handed over on the high seas in good order. In turn, the FSB insisted the Ukrainians themselves were to blame if anything went missing after they took back the ships (TASS, November 21).
During his election campaign Zelenskyy promised the return of the “the men and ships.” On Wednesday (November 20), he flew to Ochakiv to meet and inspect the recovered boats. Zelenskyy told journalists some equipment is missing and that Kyiv would demand that Moscow return it all. The ships will be refurbished and, in some three months, again ready for service, the president declared. Zelenskyy insisted the ships (and men) were returned without any preconditions: “I did not agree, or promise, or sign anything” (Militarynews.ru, November 21). But according to Nikolai Polozov, the Ukrainian sailors’ Russian lawyer, the legal case has not been closed, and the boats are legally still evidence items, though handed over to Ukraine for safekeeping. All weapons and munitions were removed from aboard vessels by the Russian authorities, and the Ukrainian Navy cannot use or repair the boats until Russia allows it (Interfax, November 21).
Instead of clearing the atmosphere before the Paris summit, the boat handover may have created yet another bone of contention between Kyiv and Moscow. After the Kerch Strait incident on November 25, 2018, Poroshenko declared martial law in Ukraine for 30 days in regions bordering Russia, and reservists were partially called up in anticipation of a possible Russian invasion, which ultimately did not materialize. Today, the possibility of a sudden massive Russo-Ukrainian military flare-up looks remote, though skirmishes in Donbas will most likely continue despite the coming Paris summit. Zelenskyy apparently hopes the French and German leaders may put pressure on Putin to agree on a solid ceasefire and begin the process of reintegrating the Donbas territory controlled by Moscow-supported forces back into Ukraine by handing control of the local Russian-Ukrainian border to Kyiv-appointed officials (Interfax, November 20).
Of course, Paris and Berlin lack the clout or desire to force Moscow to do anything of the sort. On April 24, 2019, days after Zelenskyy won the election, Putin signed an ukaz (presidential decree) allowing Ukrainians in Donbas to claim Russian citizenship. As of November, 170,000 Russian passports have been handed out in Rostov Oblast alone to Ukrainians from Donbas (Interfax, November 13). Putin has mused that while he did not know Zelenskyy personally and only spoke with him on the phone, the Ukrainian president “seems to be a nice and smart guy with positive ideas. But can he deliver? I do not know.” Any progress toward peace in Donbas must be, according to Putin, okayed by the separatist leaders (who are Russian-appointed figureheads with no independent clout) (Kremlin.ru, November 20). Moscow has deliberately changed the situation on the ground, so it must continue to be a protector of the separatist Donbas. This may change only if the rest of Ukraine also agrees to be Russian a protectorate.