Russian authorities returned several seized Ukrainian naval ships yesterday in the run-up to peace talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy next month.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to host the summit in Paris, welcomed the move, saying that it would help build confidence between the two sides.
The Russian coastguard had seized the three vessels and their crews during a stand-off in waters off the coast of the disputed Crimea region last year.
The Russian side opened fire during the incident.
Russia maintains that the Ukrainian navy had committed a “provocation” with an incursion into Russian territorial waters in the Kerch Strait, located between Crimea and the Russian mainland.
Ukraine and Western powers, including the European Union and the United States, consider Crimea Ukrainian territory.
Russia occupied and annexed Crimea from neighbouring Ukraine in 2014 after Ukraine, a former Soviet republic within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, ousted its pro-Russian president in a political pivot towards the West.
By sending the ships to Crimea, Ukraine committed a “crime not only against the sovereignty of the Russian Federation but also against the Ukrainian citizens who were deliberately endangered and forced to commit offences”, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ships’ return, confirmed by the Ukrainian government, occurred hours before Germany’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, was to arrive in Ukraine to assist the peace effort.
The ships’ two dozen crew members had already been released two months ago in a prisoner exchange.
Germany and France have been brokering renewed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in an effort to resolve a conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military that erupted in two eastern Ukrainian regions, near the Russian border, shortly after the Crimea occupation.
Russia has long denied Ukraine’s allegations that it has been fuelling the conflict, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donetsk Basin or Donbass.
Putin maintains that he is representing the separatists to achieve peace.
Zelenskiy, inaugurated earlier this year, has set resolving the conflict as his top priority.
About 13,000 people have been killed in the fighting, according to estimates by the United Nations.
Russia has set its expectations low ahead of the planned meeting between the leaders on December 9 in Paris, according to comments by Putin’s spokesman as reported by the Russian news agency Interfax.
“Let’s not overestimate our expectations so that later we will not be disappointed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
He expressed hope that the talks would “deliver some kind of result.”
It would be the first meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron also set to attend.
The Kremlin said in a statement yesterday that Putin and Macron had discussed preparations in a phone call.
It emphasised Russia’s position that Ukraine must grant more autonomy to the Donbass.
Macron welcomed the return of the Ukrainian warships in a statement issued by his office, saying that it was an “expected” gesture that “helps build confidence in the dialogue between Russia and Ukraine”.
Macron has also spoken to Zelenskiy and Merkel about the planned summit, the Elysee Palace said.
The last summit of the leaders of the four countries, in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015, resulted in a ceasefire agreement that has been regularly violated.
This photo taken on November 26, 2018 shows the seized Ukrainian military vessels in a port of Kerch, Crimea.
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