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Merkel presses Putin on detained Ukrainian sailors in phone call

Vladimir Putin meets with German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi in 2018. (

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, with Merkel pressing Putin on the continued detention of 24 Ukrainian sailors seized by Moscow’s forces near the Kerch Strait.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer on December 28 said the situation in Ukraine was one of two deadly conflicts discussed by Merkel and Putin in a phone call, with the leaders also addressing Syria in the wake of the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from the war-torn country.

Tensions have risen in the Crimea region after Russian Coast Guard forces on November 25 opened fire and detained several Ukrainian vessels and 24 crew members in the Black Sea. The seamen remain in Russian custody and are facing criminal charges of illegally crossing Russia’s border.

Moscow alleged that the vessels had illegally entered Russian territorial waters near the Crimea region, which Russia occupied and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine and most UN member states do not recognize the annexation.

The European Union and the United States have said Russia’s actions were illegal and have called on Moscow to immediately return the vessels and their crews to Ukraine.

The German government said Merkel — in the phone call and a separate joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron — also welcomed a cease-fire that took effect at 12:01 a.m. on December 29 in the conflict area of eastern Ukraine.

Merkel and Macron said, “The approach of the New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas holidays must serve as an opportunity for the stakeholders in the conflict in eastern Ukraine to focus on the needs of civilians, who have suffered all too long as a result of this conflict and its consequences.”

The Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also welcomed the deal to establish the New Year cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian government forces have been fighting against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, shortly after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Some 10,300 people have been killed in the fighting since early 2014.

Although Moscow denies interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, the International Criminal Court in November 2016 ruled that the fighting in eastern Ukraine was “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”

The truce, set to begin on December 29 and run through January 7, was reached by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consists of Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE.

Several cease-fires have been called in the region as part of the so-called Minsk agreements, but none has met with success.

In their phone call, Merkel and Putin also discussed the seven-year civil war in Syria in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from the country.

The German and Russian leaders agreed “that the continued development of a political process for ending the conflict in Syria has to be pursued with force,” a German government statement said.

The discussion came as Syrian government forces entered the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after a Kurdish-led militia said it invited Damascus to protect the town from the threat of a Turkish military offensive.

The development was hailed on December 28 by Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, but condemned by Ankara, which opposes Syrian Kurds and is supporting rebel groups fighting the Damascus government.

Turkey continues to reinforce its military posts on the border with Syria and prepare for a possible offensive against Kurds in the north of the country.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — led militarily by the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia — seized Manbij from Islamic State militants in 2016.

The SDF’s decision to ally with the Syrian government came after Trump pledged on December 19 to pull out all U.S. troops from Syria.

Trump was criticized by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and others for the pullout, with many calling it a betrayal of the Kurdish forces that are allied with U.S. forces.