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Russia returns three navy vessels to Ukraine almost a year after seizing them

The Ukrainian navy ship LST Konstantn Olsnanskly (U 402) is anchored in the Black Sea during an exercise Sea Breeze 2010 anti-piracy exercise in the Black Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kristopher Regan/U.S. Navy)

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

France has welcomed Russia’s return of three Ukrainian naval vessels that were seized by Moscow in the Black Sea last year, saying that the move would facilitate a planned December summit in Paris on resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“The gesture…contributes to strengthening the trust in the dialogue between Russia and Ukraine,” the French Presidency said in a November 18 statement following a telephone conversation between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia handed the ships over to Ukraine earlier in the day.

The statement added that the two leaders had discussed “preparations” for the December 9 summit in Paris between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Putin. The meeting will also be attended by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Paris summit will be the first meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy, who was elected president of Ukraine in April.

The conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and separatist formations that are militarily, politically, and economically supported by Moscow has left more than 13,000 people dead since 2014. The International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled in November 2016 that the war in eastern Ukraine was “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”

The three Ukrainian naval vessels — two small armored ships and a tugboat — were seized by Russia on November 25, 2018 near the Kerch Strait, off the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia claimed they had violated Russia’s territorial waters, a claim that Ukraine has denied.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on November 18 that the vessels had been returned after “investigators fully studied them” in an ongoing probe “on illegal border crossing” and “their further presence in Russia is unnecessary.”

Ukraine called the attack and subsequent capture of 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 24 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 Paris summit, a revival of the so-called Normandy Format for resolving the war in Ukraine, will be the highest-level negotiations on the conflict since 2016.

Following the phone call between Putin and Macron, the Kremlin issued a statement saying the December summit should help “quickly and fully” implement a 2015 peace plan that was brokered by France and Germany in Minsk.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expected France to stress that the Paris summit “underlines that the Minsk agreement is inviolable and has no alternative.”

Since his election this spring, Zelenskiy has moved quickly to find a way to try to end the conflict with Moscow.

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 Russian-backed forces have withdrawn from the Luhansk settlements and disengagement is under way near the town of Petrivske in the Donetsk region.