Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko announced on Monday that his country has begun drafting a lawsuit against Russia with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a global tribunal open only to state actors, for the illegal seizure of Ukrainian ships at the mouth of the Sea of Azov in late November.
The Kerch Strait, the link between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, is flanked by Russian territory to its east and the Crimean peninsula on its west, legally part of Ukraine but invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia illegally built a bridge over the Kerch Strait to control all maritime traffic into the Sea of Azov, giving Moscow the power to cut off key Ukrainian ports like Mariupol from the greater economic community.
In late November, the Russians apprehended Ukrainian sailors and seized three ships attempting to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The arrests occurred after Russian ships rammed the Ukrainian ships, injuring at least three of the ships’ crew members. Russia insists the ships were attempting an illegal passage despite, according to Kiev, having already approved of their passage upon being alerted to their intention to enter the sea. Russia continues to deny any ramming took place and accuses Ukraine of attempting to incite aggression. Russia has not yet released the ships or its crews, believed to total 24 people.
Ukraine initially responded by imposing martial law and banning Russian men between the ages of 16 and 60 from entering the country. On Monday, Poroshenko added international legal action to the nation’s response.
“A lawsuit is being prepared for the International Court of Justice over the act of aggression. This file has already been registered. [It seeks] the Russian Federation’s liability for aggression against our state,” Poroshenko announced on Ukrainian television, according to the country’s UNIAN news agency.
Poroshenko repeated the announcement on Tuesday during a meeting with the family members of the ship crew that remain under Russian custody.
“The justice minister has been instructed today to complete preparations to sue Russia over this act of aggression so that those who gave orders can be held accountable,” he said. “The entire world should respond to this incident. We are not going to let anyone go unpunished … A group of lawyers, including foreign ones, is currently working on the possibility of holding Russia responsible.”
The ICJ is the United Nations’ (U.N.) official judiciary branch. Unlike the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has jurisdiction over individuals, only governments can file suits at the ICJ, where an allegedly independent tribunal reviews the cases and rules in favor of one or another of the parties. The ICJ also has a broader scope of cases it can accept, rather than the narrow jurisdiction at the ICC over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The Ukrainian government, which has warned that “full-scale war” with Russia is possible without a diplomatic resolution to the Kerch Strait incident, is also reportedly increasing the presence of military troops near its borders with Russia. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military announced it had called up “several hundred” reservists to prepare to serve, the Kyiv Post reported, “in case Russia starts open aggression.” The military has also begun using its more ample range for action under the 30-day martial law decree to organize military drills in every state, or oblast, the newspaper adds.
“Ukraine is taking its own steps in response to the threat of a large-scale Russian invasion,” Poroshenko ensured on Tuesday.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will also meet Tuesday to discuss how to respond to the incident. Ukraine is not a member of NATO but has requested that the coalition help protect its sovereignty, as annexing even more parts of Ukraine could bring Russia up to the border of some NATO countries. The Associated Press (AP) reports that a group of NATO country officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will meet to discuss how to support Ukraine, but does not provide any potential details of how they intend to do so. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued his own remarks on Monday however pressuring Russia to “allow freedom of navigation and unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.”
International pressure appears to have partially persuaded Moscow to attempt to ease tensions. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian Infrastructure Ministry announced that the Russians were allowing some ships to travel under the bridge to the Sea of Azov to Mariupol and Berdyansk, important economic lifelines for Kiev.
“Vessels make their way to the entrance and exit through the Kerch Strait toward Ukrainian ports. The Russian side stops the vessels and inspects them as before, but the movement is partially restored,” Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan reportedly stated in a press release from his ministry.