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US lawmakers draft sanctions on 24 Russians over 24 detained Ukrainian sailors

Ukraine military ships on Navy Day. (Ввласенко/Wikimedia Commons)

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

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers dedicated to Ukrainian issues has introduced legislation to sanction members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) over their roles in taking 24 Ukrainian crewmen captive last November near the Kerch Strait.

The four co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus on July 18 said in a statement that the so-called SAILORS act would apply to 24 senior FSB officers and their close associates.

Democratic Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Mike Quigley and Republicans Andy Harris and Brian Fitzpatrick said that “the United States continues to strongly condemn Russia’s dangerous naval assault on the Ukrainian Navy and the illegal detainment 24 Ukrainian sailors.”

“The event represents the latest in a series of malicious steps taken by Russia to undermine Ukraine’s democratic progress and the international rules-based order,” the lawmakers said.

On November 25, Russian Coast Guard vessels fired on and seized three Ukrainian Navy vessels and their crews while they were on their way from the Black Sea to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Moscow accuses them of illegal entry into Russian territorial waters, which they deny, and they have been formally charged with illegal border crossing.

They are currently being held in a pretrial detention center in Russia.

The Kerch Strait is the sole passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. It runs between Russia and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized in March 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum deemed illegitimate by Kyiv, the United States, and at least 100 countries.

The takeover of the peninsula, and Russian support for separatist militants who seized parts of eastern Ukraine at the start of a conflict that has now killed some 13,000 people, came after pro-European protests pushed Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in Kyiv.

Ukraine called the attack and subsequent capture of 24 crewmen a violation of international maritime law.

Western leaders have demanded that Russia release the crew, and the incident has led to the imposition of additional sanctions on Russia.

In May, the U.S. sanctioned six Russians, including at least two FSB officers and about a half-dozen defense firms, in coordination with the European Union and Canada.

Ukraine the same month won a favorable ruling from the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which ordered Russia to release all 24 sailors and the three impounded vessels.

In a resolution on July 18, the newly elected European Parliament called on Russia “to release without further delay and unconditionally all illegally and arbitrarily detained Ukrainian citizens both in Russia and in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.”

The sailors were specifically mentioned in the nonbinding resolution.

In a March 12 report, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that Russia breached international humanitarian law and called the 24 captive Ukrainians “prisoners of war.”