Ukraine won a legal victory Saturday against Russia over last year’s naval clash off the coast of Crimea, as a United Nations tribunal ordered Moscow to immediately release the ships and sailors it captured.
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to hand over the three ships and two dozen sailors jailed since the incident on Nov. 25 and allow them to return to Ukraine. Russia refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing the panel doesn’t have jurisdiction in cases involving military activities.
“The non-appearing party is nevertheless a party,” said tribunal President Jin-Hyun Paik, reading from the text of the decision from the court’s base in Hamburg, Germany. He added that Russia has “an obligation to comply promptly.”
The panel voted 19-1 in Ukraine’s favor, with only the Russian judge dissenting.
The tribunal rejected Ukraine’s request that it order Russia to drop the criminal proceedings against the sailors. The ruling Saturday didn’t address the merits of the case, covering only provisional measures before a full hearing can be held later. In its ruling, the panel rejected Russia’s contention that the events were covered by the military-activity exemption, noting that Moscow’s subsequent criminal prosecution of the sailors in the case was a reason to consider it a law-enforcement action subject to the treaty.
The panel gave the parties until June 24 to report on compliance with its order.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the ruling that Russia will continue to argue that the tribunal doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case. Ukraine’s representative said Kiev expects Russia to comply “quickly and in full.”
The incident was the first open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine since the 2014 crisis triggered by Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Kiev. On Nov. 25, the Ukrainian ships were stopped, fired on and seized by Russia coast guard vessels near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black and Azov seas. Russia continues to hold the ships and has charged the crew with violating its border. Ukraine argues the naval ships were covered by sovereign immunity under the Law of the Sea.
Ukraine contended the ships were stopped in the Black Sea on their way back to port in Odessa, having given up plans to transit the strait. Russia argued that they were trying to enter the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait in defiance of orders from Russian coast guard vessels to stop because Russian officials had ordered that waterway closed temporarily.
The U.S. and European Union have called on Russia to release the sailors and ships. Washington imposed sanctions on several people and companies it alleges were involved. President Donald Trump cited Russia’s role in the incident as the reason he canceled a planned meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, late last year.