Ukraine’s security service has seized a Russia-registered oil tanker that allegedly blocked maritime traffic in the Kerch Strait. It comes as both countries discuss the release of Ukrainian sailors detained in the area last year.
The Russian-flagged ship ‘Nika Spirit’ was detained by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and military prosecutors after it moored at the port of Izmail in southwestern Ukraine, according to the agency’s statement. Ukrainian authorities have searched the vessel, seized her logs and communications records, as well as interviewed the crew.
The SBU maintains that the tanker had blocked the passage of Ukrainian Navy ships through the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait in November last year. Citing international maritime codes, the service said that she was allegedly called ‘Neyma’ at the time.
Later in the day, the ship’s owner reported that Nika Spirit’s crew “is safe and heads home,” but the report wasn’t confirmed by the Russian Embassy in Kiev.
It is unclear what will happen to the ship and her crew, although the SBU said it will seek an arrest order for the vessel. But the timing is particularly notable as the detention came amid low-key talks about the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors currently imprisoned in Russia.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian media cited Kiev’s ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, who said that an agreement to return the sailors home has finally been reached. Later in the day, she refuted these reports, telling Russia’s RBC newspaper that she only asked the FSB, the Russian security agency in charge of the trial, to release them under a bail scheme, and that talks are in progress.
All of those detained were manning fast attack crafts ‘Nikopol’ and ‘Berdyansk,’ as well as the tug boat ‘Yany Kapu,’ which tried to sail through the Strait and reach the Sea of Azov. The ships were stopped by the Russian coast guard and their crews were detained over the violation of maritime borders.
Later, Moscow accused Kiev of inflicting a provocation and revealed that the sailors had ignored orders to change course, leaving the coast guard with no choice but to fire warning shots and ram the intruding vessels.
Ukraine, in turn, denied that its ships had violated Russia’s border and insisted their crews’ actions were lawful. The then-president Petro Poroshenko called the seizure of the ships “an act of aggression” and demanded that Moscow immediately release the sailors.