By Stefan J. Bos
Video footage showed men in uniform approaching a Russian tanker. They soon enter the vessel questioning crew members on board. The Ukrainian Security Service or SBU said it seized the Russian vessel moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port Izmail on Wednesday.
It claimed the Russian ship had entered Ukraine under its new name, the Nika Spirit “to cover its involvement in illegal actions.” But officials say they identified the vessel by its unique International Maritime Organization number.
Ukrainian authorities suggest Moscow has been using the tanker in a controversial Russian operation. Russian forces blocked Ukrainian vessels from sailing through the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in November last year.
Several Russian ships even fired on the Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait on November 25. That sparked a major crisis between the two countries.
Russia seized the Ukrainian vessels and detained 24 Ukrainians on board.
The waters where that violent incident happened separate the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and Russia.
Relations between the two neighbors have also suffered because of an ongoing war between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. That conflict, which began in 2014, has killed more than 13,000 people.
The seizure of the Russian tanker by Ukrainian security forces has now further strained relations between Kiev and Moscow.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned Ukraine, “there will soon be consequences” if any Russian crew member were “taken as hostages.”
In Moscow, senior Russian lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov called Ukraine’s detention of the tanker was “absolutely illegal.” He added that it was detrimental to relations between the two countries.
It was not immediately clear how the standoff would impact a planned prisoners exchange between the two countries.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s ombudswoman said talks on the release of the Ukrainian sailors from the three vessels seized by the Russian navy off Crimea’s coast had intensified after Russian and Ukrainian leaders spoke by phone earlier this month.