Ukraine has detained and searched a Russian ship it said was involved in last year’s naval clash between the two countries in the Black Sea, in a move that is likely to increase tension between Moscow and Kiev.
Ukraine’s SBU state security service said on Thursday it had boarded the Russian commercial tanker, the Nika Spirit, in the port of Izmail near the country’s border with Romania. The SBU said it was gathering evidence relating to the vessel’s involvement in the November clash, when Moscow attacked and seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their 24 crewmen.
The tanker’s 10 crew were released after questioning and are returning home to Russia, according to the country’s embassy in Ukraine, after Russia’s foreign ministry warned Kiev of “consequences” if it was found to have broken international law.
The detention of the ship is the first major flashpoint between Moscow and Kiev since Volodymyr Zelensky was elected Ukraine’s president in April.
The countries have been in a state of conflict since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented a separatist war in Ukraine’s far eastern regions. Relations have soured further since the naval clash, which both sides blame on the other.
“We are looking into the circumstances of the incident before taking proper measures. If this amounts to taking Russians hostage, this will be qualified as a blatant violation of international law and consequences will not be long in coming,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement before the crewmen were released.
Russia’s embassy in Kiev wrote in a tweet: “The crew of the Russian tanker in the port of Izmail is going home. The ship itself remains in Ukraine.”
The SBU said the tanker, which was previously named Neyma, had been used in the November incident off the coast of Crimea to prevent the three Ukrainian ships from passing under the Kerch bridge, which connects the peninsula to mainland Russia.
“The above named vessel is considered to be a piece of material evidence,” the SBU said in a statement. “A petition to a court for its seizure is being prepared.”
The incident will test the geopolitical skills of Mr Zelensky, a former comedian and political novice, who cemented power in the country when his Servant of the People party won an outright ruling majority in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
It also risks derailing tentative talks over a deal to return the Ukrainian sailors, who have been imprisoned in Russia since last year’s clash, and negotiations over the exchange of the many prisoners held by both sides, as well as Russian-backed separatists controlling breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house, called on Ukraine’s president to clarify whether he agreed with the seizure.
“Mr Zelensky’s position needs an immediate explanation. Which is the real Ukraine? When it continues sabre-rattling or when it seeks peace?” Mr Kosachev said.
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