Three Ukrainian military boats seized by the Russian border guards during an attempt to illegally pass through the Kerch Strait last year have been returned to Kiev, Moscow has announced.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the ships were evidence in the criminal probe into the 2018 incident and agreed to hand them back to Ukraine because “all the necessary investigative activities” related to the vessels were completed.
Russia intends to prevent any future provocations near its border in a robust manner, including with a goal of ensuring the safety of maritime travel.
The Ukrainian Navy confirmed receiving the boats and said they would soon be transported to the port city of Odessa. Notably, the crews were released in September during a breakthrough Russian-Ukrainian prisoner swap.
The vessels got detained on November 25, after an attempt to cross the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. It is now best known for the monumental bridge that Russia built across it to connect the Crimean Peninsula with mainland Russia, and is heavily guarded.
Both Ukrainian and Russian ships have passage rights, but there are strict safety rules, which Moscow said the Ukrainian Navy had breached. The attempt escalated into an altercation between Russian border guards and Ukrainian crews, who reportedly refused to take directions and declared that they had the right to pass as they please.
The conflict stopped short of bloodshed and resulted in arrests of the Ukrainian sailors and their ships for “violation of territorial waters.” Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – which is in charge of border troops – accused Kiev of staging “a provocation.”
The Ukrainian sailors were quickly lauded as national heroes and political prisoners in their home country. Moscow countered, arguing the entire mission was an obvious ploy of Poroshenko to score political points ahead of the presidential election. If true, his plan obviously failed when he suffered a crushing defeat by Volodymir Zelensky, who won over 73 percent of the vote in the run-off in April.
The crews of the boats were released as part of a large prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine on September 7, which Zelensky negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a wider effort to deescalate tensions between the two nations.
The release of the military boats comes shortly ahead of talks in Paris scheduled for December 9, which will be the first personal meeting between the two leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will mediate the event, which was confirmed last week.
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