Ukraine seizes Russian tanker in Black Sea in retaliation move

Alec Luhn
Authorities said the tanker was used in a Russian operation to block Ukrainian vessels from sailing through the Kerch Strait in November - REUTERS

Ukraine has seized a Russian tanker it said was involved in the capture of three Ukrainian ships and their crews near annexed Crimea last year.

The incident could complicate president Volodymyr Zelenskiy's attempts at a more workable relationship with Russia and discussions of a prisoner exchange between the two countries.

The 10 Russians on board the the Nika Spirit, previously known as the NEYMA, were questioned by Ukraine's security service before being released.

The Russian foreign ministry had previously said it would be "a gross violation of international law" if Russians were "taken hostage" in the incident, promising that "consequences will not be long coming".

The security service said the tanker had blocked the passage under the bridge between mainland Russia and Crimea in November when Russian ships fired upon and boarded three Ukrainian navy ships attempting to go through. 

The incident sparked a military standoff and cemented Moscow's control of the Sea of Azov, which is enclosed by Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

The 24 sailors on the ships were jailed in Moscow and are being tried on charges of illegally crossing the border. Security agents, prosecutors and border guards raided the Nika Spirit in the port of Izmail near Odessa, where it had gone for repairs, and would confiscate it as evidence in a criminal case, the security service said.

The vessel had changed its name to "hide its involvement in illegal activities and an act of aggression," it claimed. Video showed camouflaged security service agents approaching the tanker in a speedboat, climbing the gangplank and demanding documents from the captain in the wheelhouse.

Ukrainian media reported that it had later been discovered that the crew of the vessel had changed since November. Russia's human rights ombudswoman said on Thursday evening 10 crew members were on a bus to neighbouring Moldova, from where they would fly back to Russia.

It had previously been reported that 15 were on board. Russian senator Konstantin Kosachyov said if Mr Zelensky had approved the operation, then he was "continuing the provocation" started by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko in November.

If he hadn't, then Mr Zelenskiy had shown himself to be "merely an instrument in the hands of Ukrainian security forces," he claimed.

Lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov said Ukraine's actions were as "absolutely illegal" and harmful to relations. A Russian firm that previously owned the vessel claimed that it had not been in operation in 2018. 

Mr Zelenskiy and Mr Putin spoke by phone for the first time this month, discussing the possibility of a prisoner exchange.  Ukraine's ombudswoman said negotiations for the release of the 24 sailors had intensified, and some Ukrainian officials have erroneously claimed that an agreement had been reached. 

The Kremlin has said the sailors must face trial. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the simmering conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that kicked off after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.