This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Ukraine’s navy says that the three ships captured by Russia almost a year ago and released on November 19 have been returned in very poor condition and are not able to make it back to port under their own power.
Navy chief Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko said on November 20 that, because of their condition, the ships — two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat — are being moved slowly by other vessels.
“They cannot sail on their own. The Russians ruined them — even took lamps, power outlets, and toilets. We will show the whole world the Russian barbarism towards them,” Voronchenko said.
The ships arrived at the port of Ochakiv in the southern Mykolaiv region later November 20.
On November 25, 2018, Russian Coast Guard vessels fired on and seized the three ships and their crews, consisting of 24 sailors, in the Kerch Strait, while they were on their way from the Black Sea to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.
Running between Russia and the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea that was forcibly seized by Russia in 2014, the Kerch Strait is the sole passageway from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
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 more than 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 the 24 crewmen a violation of international maritime law.
On May 25, the UN’s maritime tribunal ordered Russia to immediately release the crewmen and impounded boats, a ruling that Moscow ignored.
The Ukrainian crewmen were released on September 7 as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, during which each side swapped 35 captives.
The release of the ships comes less than a month before a December 9 summit between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.
The so-called Normandy Format talks are aimed at ending the conflict. The summit will be the highest-level negotiations on the conflict since 2016.
Envoys from Kyiv and Moscow in early October reached a breakthrough after both sides agreed to have forces withdrawn from two flash points in the Luhansk region and one in Donetsk as conditions for the four-way talks to resume.
Ukrainian government and Russia-backed forces withdrew from the Luhansk settlements and disengagement is underway near the town of Petrivske in the Donetsk region.