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Will Russia Release Ukrainian Sailors and Ships?

A Russian court might release 24 Ukrainian crew members and three navy ships in the coming weeks. If that happens, such a move will be seen as a “one step forward, two steps back” strategy that the Kremlin is using in its confrontation with Ukraine.

Ukraine initiated a lawsuit against Russia and appealed to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in order to ensure the release of its servicemen and vessels captured by Russian security forces in November 2018. The date of the hearings set to be held in Hamburg is to be announced soon, but most likely it will take place on May 6 or 7.

Ukrainian servicemen and vessels were captured by the Russian Federal Security Services on November 25, 2018, while trying to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait on their way to the port of Mariupol. The Kerch Strait, as well as the whole Crimean Peninsula, is a de-facto part of Russia, but since Ukraine never recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea, it didn’t hesitate to send its naval ships through territorial waters effectively controlled by the Russian Federation. In addition, NATO recently announced its plans to deploy warships to the Black Sea to ensure safe passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait.

In order to avoid any potential accidents, Russia might release the Ukrainian sailors and ships, hoping that NATO will give up its Black Sea adventure. On the other hand, the Kremlin could portray this move as “an act of goodwill,” especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that should simplify getting a Russian passport for the residents of the breakaway Donbass republics.

“People living on the territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics are completely deprived of any civil rights, it crosses all boundaries from a human rights perspective to tolerate this situation,” said Putin.

Ukrainian politicians, on the other side, expressed outrage, and Ukraine’s president-elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, called for more international sanctions against Russia over the decree.

The Kremlin is obviously sending mixed signals to the new Ukrainian leader. On one hand, Putin signed the decree that was seen in Kiev as another “act of aggression” while, on the other hand, the Russian company, Art Grani, developed a concept of 25 silver coins with the image of Volodymyr Zelensky. The same metalworking company has minted 45 limited-edition coins commemorating Donald Trump’s presidency back in 2017. In addition, Russian State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya recently wrote that she wants to believe in “honesty and humanity of Volodymyr Zelensky, so that captured Ukrainian sailors can return home as soon as possible.”

Russia is, most likely, trying to find a way to release the Ukrainian crew members, but at the same time, it doesn’t want such move to be seen as weakness. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained on April 21 that Putin recognized the Poroshenko regime and his election in May of 2014 because Germany and France told him to do that. He also said that Russia is ready to let Germany and France study shipping rules in the Kerch Strait on site, which is just another sign of the Russian inferiority towards its “dear Western partners,” which is a term that Vladimir Putin often uses when talking about Western leaders.

The Kerch Strait access and release of Ukrainian sailors and ships will be another test for the Kremlin. It will have to show if it’s ready for serious confrontations with Ukraine and the West, or if it’s doing just another PR maneuver that is actually just masking Russian weakness.