Speaking in front of the journalists on December 10, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin claimed Brussels had promised to step up its efforts and push Moscow to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors that were detained by the Russian Navy on November 25 after an incident in the Kerch Strait – the narrow waterway that separates Crimea from Russia’s southern coast.
“I’ve asked (the European Union) to push Russia to release our sailors…the EU promised to step up its efforts,” Klimkin said after an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting. He lamented, however, that he did not get an immediate response from Brussels about Ukraine’s demand that the bloc to impose a new round of sanctions against Russia or the individuals that were involved in the incident in the Kerch Strait, which saw combat vessels from Russia’s coast guard seize three Ukrainian vessels and the arrest of the crew 24 members. Moscow later accused the Ukrainians of illegally crossing into Russia’s territorial waters as they sailed near Crimea, the strategic Black Sea peninsula that was illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014.
“I’ve told them (the Europeans) that we need an international mechanism and international monitoring to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait. However, further discussions will be needed,” Klimkin said.
Despite the EU’s repeated calls for the immediate release of the Ukrainian sailors and a pleas for a peaceful de-escalation of the situation to both sides, speaking at a press conference later on December 10, Europe’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said no further punitive actions, either I the immediate or short-term, are to levied against Moscow for the incident that occurred in the Kerch Strait or the neighbouring Azov Sea.
“The EU’s sanctions are based on a very sound legal basis and these are in the hands of the member states when it comes to their judgment and information. The process of assessment of shared information is subject to a very severe and intense screening process as well as consensus building process on the political level,” said Mogherini.
In the weeks since the 24 sailors were arrested in international waters by armed Russian coastal patrol boats, a court in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, ruled that the Ukrainian crews will be held in detention until at least January 25.
The EU and the US have since called on Russia to respect international law concerning the freedom of movement on the high seas and to release all of the detained sailors. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, speaking on November 28 at an investment forum in Moscow, called the clash “a minor incident and provocation” that timed to help boost embattled Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s dismal approval ratings only three months before Ukraine goes to the polls to elect a new head of state.
Moscow closed the Strait to international and Ukrainian shipping. which led to an effective blockade of Ukraine Azov Sea city Mariupol – the port in the region and key cog in Kyiv’s supply chain of coal to the outside world. The Russian Navy recently reopened the Strait on a limited basis but continues to block the comings and goings of 90% of Kerch’s sea traffic.
Poroshenko responded to the incident by controversially imposing martial law for 30 days in all of Ukraine’s regions that border Russia and the Black Sea, a move that was met with open condemnation and widespread suspicion both inside Ukraine and abroad due to the timing of the announcement.