International Tribunal Orders Russia to Release Ukrainian Sailors

Russian blockade at Kerch Strait Bridge, November 2018 (social media)

By The Maritime Executive 05-28-2019 08:16:23

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has ordered Russian authorities to release two dozen Ukrainian Navy servicemembers who were captured by Russia's border patrol during a skirmish near the Kerch Strait last year. The order has no enforcement mechanisms, and Russia has indicated that it will not comply. 

The decision was nearly unanimous, with 19 judges voting in favor of the sailors' release and one judge of Russian nationality voting against. Russia's government boycotted the tribunal's proceedings, asserting that the court has no jurisdiction over a maritime region that Moscow claims as its own. 

On Monday, the Moscow City Court ignored the tribunal's ruling and upheld an extension of the sailors' detention until later this year. At the Kremlin, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the tribunal's ruling and reiterated Moscow's position. "The [Russian] investigation . . . should be completed and trial should be held," he told state media. "In [the] case with the Kerch Strait, the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea cannot be applied, our Foreign Ministry has clarified this in detail. Russia will certainly continue consistently defending its viewpoint on this story."

On November 25, 2018, Russian forces fired on and seized the Ukrainian Navy patrol boats Berdiansk and Nikopol and the Ukrainian tugboat Yany Kapu. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) detained 24 Ukrainian sailors in connection with the seizure, including three who sustained "soft tissue injuries" from Russian fire. The altercation came after a period of heightened tensions between Moscow and Kiev over allegedly excessive Russian inspections for merchant shipping in Kerch Strait.

Russia claims the existence of a sovereign maritime border near Kerch Strait, though this demarcation is not recognized by the international community. On paper, Ukrainian access through the Strait is guaranteed by a bilateral treaty with Moscow and by the freedom of navigation protections afforded to all vessels by UNCLOS.

Russian authorities are holding all 24 members of the vessels' crews at a jail near Moscow. While the sailors are foreign military servicemembers, they are not being treated as prisoners of war; instead, they face civilian criminal charges of "violating the Russian border." Western leaders have called for Russia to return the captured vessels, release the sailors and respect international law regarding freedom of navigation.