Ukraine seizes Russian tanker in Black Sea in retaliation for 2018 flotilla clash

By MATTHEW BODNER | The Washington Post | Published: July 25, 2019

MOSCOW - Ukraine seized a Russian tanker anchored in the Black Sea on Thursday, freeing the crew but holding onto the vessel in an apparent retaliation for Russia's capture of Ukrainian ships and sailors last year.

The release of the 10 crew member from the ship Nika Spirit appeared to slightly lower tensions after the tanker seizure, but Ukraine's move underscored the ongoing diplomatic and military flash points between the two nations.

It also posed a major test for Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The actor-turned-politician who has pledged to seek peace efforts with the Kremlin after more than five years of conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's SBU security service said the Nika Spirit was identified as being involved in the interception of Ukrainian vessels on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait near Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. Twenty-four crew members aboard the Ukrainian vessels remain in detention.

A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was looking into the Black Sea seizure and would take "appropriate measures" in response, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

Before the Russian crew was released, the Kremlin denounced the taking of "Russian hostages" and warned of rapid "consequences." 

The Russian embassy in Kiev confirmed to Interfax that the crew members were released are were allowed to return home. The ship, however, remained impounded off Ukraine's port of Izmail.

Russia's human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, said 10 crew members - all Russian citizens - were released without charges, Interfax reported. The sailors were being taken by bus to Moldova, where they planned to fly to Moscow. 

The seizure of the Russian tanker echoes tensions in the Persian Gulf, where Iran seized a British-flagged tanker last week. Iran's move came in response to the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British forces earlier this month.

It was unclear whether Ukraine's tanker seizure could derail efforts to engineer a prisoner swap that may include the 24 Ukrainian sailors detained in Russia.

In their first phone call, Ukraine's president Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed prisoner swaps as part of a broader detente in relations. Zelensky's spokesperson said at the time the 24 sailors were high on the agenda.

Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of Russian senate's foreign affairs committee, called the Ukrainian seizure of the vessel an act of piracy aimed to derail normalization of Russian-Ukrainian relations, Interfax reported
"This will more than likely complicate the situation," he said. 

The vessel identified as Nika Spirit shares an internationally recognized identification code with the tanker Neyma, which was used by the Russian coast guard in November to physically block three Ukrainian navy vessels from entering the Kerch Strait.

The strait runs between Crimea and the Russian mainland into the Azov Sea. A 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement designates both bodies as shared internal waters. Since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia has asserted greater control over the Kerch Strait.
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Stern reported from Kiev, Ukraine.

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