Russia Rejects U.N. Court Ruling to Release Captive Ukrainian Ships and Crew

Global court to rule on Russia's detention of Ukrainian sailors
AFP/File STR

The United Nations International Maritime Court on Saturday ruled Russia must immediately release 24 Ukrainian sailors taken prisoner in November and return three seized naval vessels to Ukraine.

The Kremlin immediately rejected the ruling, claiming the Ukrainians violated Russian territorial waters and the U.N. court has no jurisdiction over the case.

Russia seized the Ukrainian ships and sailors during a November 2018 confrontation in the Kerch Strait, which sits between Russia and the Crimean peninsula it annexed in 2014. Ukraine is concerned the Russians will choke off shipping through the Strait to damage the Ukrainian economy, a task made easier for the Russians when they constructed an enormous bridge across the strait to Crimea.

At a moment of intense tension between Ukraine and Russia, Russian forces seized three Ukrainian vessels and imprisoned their crews. The Ukrainians regard these captives as prisoners of war and accuse Russia of violating international treaties specifying how they should be treated.

A tribunal of the U.N. International Maritime Court ruled from Hamburg, Germany, on Saturday that Russia “must proceed immediately to release the Ukrainian soldiers and allow them to return to Ukraine.” The ruling passed 19-1, with only the Russian judge voting against it.

Ukraine and Russia were given until June 25 to comply with the court’s order. Both sides were instructed to “refrain from taking any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute.”

Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy applauded the ruling and said Russian compliance would indicate “real readiness to stop the conflict with Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, the Kremlin rejected the U.N. court ruling on Monday, insisting the court has no jurisdiction over the case because the international laws it cited are not applicable.

“In the case with the Kerch Strait, the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea cannot be applied, our Foreign Ministry has clarified this in detail. Russia will certainly continue consistently defending its viewpoint on this story,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the ruling on similar grounds, insisting the entire incident could have been avoided “if the requirements of the Russian legislation concerning the navigation in this area had been observed.”

“We call on the Ukrainian side to do so in the future,” the Foreign Ministry added.

The Russians refused to even attend International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea hearings after Ukraine filed its complaint because Moscow regards the incident as a criminal violation of its territory by the Ukrainian ships and treats the crew as duly processed and imprisoned under Russian law. Ukraine had asked the U.N. tribunal to order a halt to Russia’s trial of the captured sailors, but the tribunal did not issue such an order.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Monday urged Moscow to reconsider its position and comply with the U.N. court ruling.

“NATO has made repeatedly clear that there was no justification for Russia’s use of military force against Ukrainian ships and military personnel. We continue to call on Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships without delay,” a NATO source said.

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker also welcomed the court ruling and said it is “past time for Russia to release the Ukrainian crewmen and vessels it illegally seized.”

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