US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker believes that Russia is holding the Ukrainian sailors in order to put political pressure on the Ukrainian government ahead of its presidential elections. Volker considers it possible that additional sanctions will be imposed on Russia for this.
“Russia continues illegally to hold these Ukrainian sailors and illegally is charging them with crimes under a civilian code, seeking to illegally enter Russian territory, which is not the case. So Russia has just continued to sustain its aggression against Ukraine. The reports that we see are that Russia intends to continue to hold these sailors at least until April, which puts it on the upside of the Ukrainian presidential election. That just gives the impression that again, it’s more of an act of policy, a political act by Russia to hold these sailors and use them as a pressure point on Ukraine, rather than there being any actual legal basis for their detention,” Volker said in a telephone briefing on Thursday.
He added that the US and the EU continue to demand the sailors’ release and to search for additional steps that can be taken against Russia.
“I visited Brussels in December, had meetings with the EU and NATO, have had a number of follow-up meetings here in Washington, and I can say that both the United States and Europe are looking at what additional measures we should be taking if Russia fails to return the sailors and continues to make these assertions of control of the Kerch Strait as it is. The U.S. in the natural course of business will be reviewing the Crimea sanctions in February. That comes up on an anniversary. The EU is looking at additional sanctions as well. Nothing has been agreed yet, and they have a minister’s meeting coming up, also in February,” the special representative said.
Volker also expressed hope that Russia would release the Ukrainian sailors so that his negotiations with Russian Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov can continue and make progress.
He recalled that, due to Russia’s aggression in the Kerch Strait, US President Donald Trump canceled his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin. Volker himself did likewise with his planned meeting with Surkov.
On 25 November last year, Russia forcibly captured the Ukrainian military boats the Berdyansk, Nikopol and the tugboat Yany Kapu in neutral waters. All 24 Ukrainians on board were charged with violating the Russian border, arrested, and transferred from Kerch to Moscow. Ukraine considered this an act of military aggression.