Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin told Current Time on July 15 that grounds exist to expect that the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia during a November 2018 clash off the coast of Crimea will soon return to Ukraine.
“What was discussed between the president of Russia and our friends and partners gives me the possibility to say that there’ll be a development of the situation,” Klimkin said in an interview in Kyiv with anchor Iryna Romaliiska. “But when and how, I don’t want to say.”
On July 12, Ukraine met with Russia, Germany and France in Paris as part of the Normandy Four discussions to end the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia took the 24 men captive after the Russian coast guard fired on and rammed three Ukrainian naval boats in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov. Moscow claimed that the vessels had violated its territorial waters on a “secret” mission – an allegation based on Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
In late May, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), a United-Nations-founded body in Hamburg, Germany, ruled that Russia must “immediately” release the sailors to Ukraine and also return the three Ukrainian boats. But Moscow has refused, stating the matter is outside ITLOS’ jurisdiction. ITLOS has no power to enforce its decisions.
In a June 26 diplomatic note, the Russian foreign ministry wrote Kyiv that the men were being prosecuted on criminal charges and that, “for their release,” Ukraine can use “the possibilities” contained in Russian legislation.
Klimkin interpreted that to mean that Moscow offered to return the sailors, but with the criminal charges against them intact. The men currently are in pre-trial detention in Moscow on charges of violating the Russian border.
The Ukrainian foreign minister stressed to Current Time that the sailors, whom Klimkin termed prisoners of war, do not “recognize that they could have committed any crimes, even in theory,” he said.
He called Kyiv’s rejection of Moscow’s position “a question of the sailors’ honor, the state’s honor, and a question of the state’s position under international law.”
If Kyiv recognizes the charges against the sailors, he continued, “Russia will use this related to our position on Crimea, our position in international courts, related to everything where we’re headed, and will say that, in reality, there wasn’t any Russian aggression [in Crimea].”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakhorova earlier claimed that Kyiv had rejected any discussion of the sailors’ release.
During his presidential campaign, Zelenskiy had prioritized the return of such Ukrainian prisoners from Russia. Last month, he publicly rebuked Klimkin after the foreign minister rejected Moscow’s diplomatic note, allegedly without consulting with him first.
In recent days, the Ukrainian president has launched a steady outreach campaign to Russia. On July 11, at Kyiv’s initiative, he spoke with President Putin for the first time by phone. The two men reportedly discussed a possible prisoner exchange as well as the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Still earlier on Facebook, Zelenskiy proposed a face-to-face meeting with Putin to discuss Crimea and Donbas.
How much headway such discussions could make is unclear. After Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region released four Ukrainian citizens from captivity on June 28, Ukraine’s representative to the Donbas talks with Russia, politician Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin, commented that “Zelenskiy’s reaction does not give [grounds] to assume that the exchanges will continue," Russia’s TASS news service reported.
The Kremlin has already spelled out what it wants for one of Ukraine’s own detainees.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced on July 15 that the Kremlin is watching for Kyiv to release 52-year-old Russian-Ukrainian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, the head of Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti in Ukraine, who faces charges of treason.
“We hope he will be released, better sooner than later,” Peskov said at a briefing, TASS reported. He refused to say, however, whether Moscow was considering releasing the 24 Ukrainian sailors in exchange for Vyshinsky.
Klimkin also declined to discuss with Current Time any such possible exchange.
In Kyiv on July 15, though, Russian human-rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova discussed with Ukrainian parliamentary ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova the possibility of the release of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners. The two women intend to exchange prisoner lists on July 16, they told a press conference in Kyiv.
Mokalkova also met with Vyshinsky, whose Monday hearing was postponed to July 19.
The Russian ombudswoman claimed that Vyshinksy himself has no interest in a prisoner swap, according to Interfax. He wants instead to be cleared in court, she said.
With additional reporting by Interfax, TASS, UNIAN, 112, Polygraph, and RFE/RL