These pistols are carried by NCOs at the Tomb of the Unknowns
A Russian court has ordered that several of the Ukrainian seafarers captured by the Russian Coast Guard during a confrontation at sea off Crimea be detained for two months.
The rulings of the court in Simferopol, capital of Russia-controlled Crimea, on November 27, 2018, signaled that the Kremlin is defying demands from Kiev and the West to release two dozen crew members who were seized after hours along with three Ukrainian navy ships the hostility at sea two days earlier.
After tensions increased when Russian Coast Guard rammed and fired Ukrainian boats on November 25, 2018, the court held detention hearings for 12 of the crew members. A Russian official said nine more would be heard on November 28, 2018.
So far, four of them have been placed in pre-trial detention – which usually means behind bars in a prison – until January 25, 2019. Under Russian law, courts can extend detention periods at the request of the prosecutor, and this was not immediately apparent if the sailors could be brought to justice.
Officials identified the Ukrainians as Volodymyr Varemez, the captain of a naval tug that was rammed by a Russian ship, and sailors Serhiy Tsybizov, Andriy Oprysko and Viktor Bespalchenko.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported that the Ukrainians had been charged with “illegally crossing the border by a group of people acting in consultation or by an organized group or for using or threatening violence”.
The trials took place hours after Western heads of state and government condemned what they saw as a “egregious” violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international maritime agreements on November 26, 2018, and urged Moscow to release the prisoners immediately.
Conflicting reports put the number of Ukrainians jailed at 23 and 24. The court rulings put them in a similar situation to several Ukrainians, including film director Oleh Sentsov, who are held in Russian prisons and prisons that Kievans and Western governments say are political Reasons.
During the ongoing confrontation off the Crimea on November 25, 2018, a Russian coast guard ship rammed the Ukrainian tug in a first encounter, a few hours later the Russian ships opened fire before special forces stormed the three Ukrainian boats. Six Ukrainians were injured.
Hostilities have added impetus to severely damaged relations between Kiev and Moscow, which invaded Crimea in March 2014 and supported armed separatists in a simmering war that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April.
These Russian actions, in response to the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president who was ousted from power by the pro-European protest movement Euromaidan, have also severely damaged his ties to the West.
The confrontation came days before Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Buenos Aires from November 30 to December. 1, 2018.
Months of mounting tension followed over the waters in and around the Kerch Strait – the narrow body of water now spanned by a bridge from Russia to Crimea and the only route for ships between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. where Ukraine has several ports including Mariupol.
On November 26, 2018, Ukraine declared martial law in 10 of its 27 regions – including all those that border or have coasts on Russia – following a so-called Russian “act of aggression”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “this aggressive Russian action” and called on Moscow to return the ships and crews and to adhere to the “internationally recognized borders of Ukraine as far as its territorial waters”.
Pompeo said both sides should “exercise restraint and honor their international commitments and commitments” and said Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko should “engage directly to resolve this situation”.
At a UN Security Council meeting on November 26, 2018, US Ambassador Nikki Haley described the incident as a “egregious violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory” and a “ruthless Russian escalation” of the conflict with Ukraine.
The UK’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Jonathan Allen, said Russia “wants to consolidate its illegal annexation of Crimea and annex the Sea of Azov”.
The international community will not accept this, he said, insisting that Russia “must not allow history to be rewritten by establishing new realities on the ground”.
Martial law will come into effect on November 28, 2018 in 10 Ukrainian regions that Poroshenko said are the most vulnerable to “aggression from Russia” and will remain in force for 30 days.
The measure includes a partial mobilization of armed forces, strengthening the Ukrainian air defense and other unspecified steps “to strengthen the regime of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism and counter-sabotage”.
In a telephone conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin expressed “serious concern” about the Ukrainian decision, the Kremlin announced on November 27, 2018.
The Russian leader also said he hoped “Berlin could influence the Ukrainian authorities to deter them from further reckless action,” a statement said in a statement.
“The imposition of martial law in various regions could potentially lead to a threatened escalation of tensions in the conflict region in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters.
Hours before the trial, the Russian state television broadcaster Rossia-24 showed pictures of several of the imprisoned Ukrainians, which were apparently taken during interrogation by Russian security services.
One of them repeated the version of events presented by the Russian authorities and said: “The actions of the Ukrainian armed ships in the Kerch Strait were provocative.”
One of the arrested appeared to read his statement. Russian law enforcement agencies frequently provide state media with footage of suspects who are forcibly questioned.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) confirmed that several of its officers were among the prisoners.
One of them was seriously injured after a Russian plane fired two rockets at Ukrainian boats, SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak said in a statement.
Federica Mogherini, Head of Foreign Policy of the European Union, described the arrest of Ukrainian occupations by Russia as “unacceptable” and called on Russia to “release immediately” the detainees and to provide them with medical assistance.
She also called on both sides to “show the greatest restraint” in order to prevent an escalation of the only living war in Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia must “understand that its actions have consequences. We will keep in contact with the Ukrainian government to underline our support. “
Unlike other US officials who loudly supported Ukraine and criticized Russia, President Trump did not mention either country in a brief response to a reporter’s question about the confrontation.
“In any case, we don’t like what is happening. And hopefully they will be fixed. I know Europe is not – they are not enthusiastic. They are working on that too. We’re all working on it together, “said Trump.
Russia’s acting UN ambassador, Dmitri Polyansky, accused the Ukrainian navy of staging “an aggressive provocation” which, in his opinion, was aimed at gaining public support for Poroshenko ahead of the presidential elections in Ukraine in March.
“They have no hope of staying in power otherwise,” he said, condemning Western leaders for tolerating their “puppets” in Kiev.
“I would like to warn you that the policy pursued by Kiev in coordination with the EU and the US to provoke a conflict with Russia has the most serious consequences,” said Polyansky.
At the beginning of the UN Security Council meeting on the incident, Russia suffered a setback after attempting to discuss the clash under an item on the agenda that cited the incident as a violation of Russian borders.
This was rejected in a procedural vote, with only China, Bolivia and Kazakhstan taking the side of Russia. The Security Council then discussed the clash under the terms set by Ukraine.
The sea confrontation took place as the Ukrainian ships approached the Kerch Strait, the only access to the Sea of Azov.
A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine identified the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov as common territorial waters.
But Moscow has maintained greater control since it took over Crimea – particularly since May 2018 when it opened a bridge connecting the peninsula on the east side of the Kerch Strait with Russian territory.
“I have to emphasize that, according to international law, Crimea and the respective territorial waters are the Ukrainian territory temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation,” the Ukrainian UN Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko told the Security Council.
“Therefore, there are no Russian borders in the area where the incident occurred. I repeat – there are no Russian state borders around the Crimean peninsula, ”he said.
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.