MOSCOW – Russian officials said Ukraine, which seized a Russian tanker, acted like a pirate, and asked Kiev to consider how the act could affect the release of its own sailors, currently trapped on Russian soil.
Ukraine “must think about the consequences” after its security service (SBU) detained the Russian-flagged Nika Spirit tanker (also known as Neyma), the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
However, if Russian citizens were “taken hostage” by Ukraine, “this would amount to a serious violation of international law, and the ramifications will soon follow,” he added.
Several hours later, the Russian embassy in Ukraine announced that “the crew is returning home while the vessel remains in Izmail”, a port city in southwest Ukraine. The ship’s owner also confirmed that the sailors had been released.
Meanwhile, senior Russian lawmakers have labeled the incident “an act of piracy” and accused the Kiev government of staging “a provocation”. Konstantin Zatulin, a senior member of the State Duma Committee in charge of post-Soviet states, said detention would undermine already strained relations between Moscow and Kiev.
By taking such action, Ukraine will be “far from reaching” the release of 24 sailors currently on trial in Russia for alleged breach of sea borders during the Kerch Strait incident last year.
It is still unclear how many sailors were on board the ship. Anatoly Matios, head of the office of the Ukrainian military prosecutor, sent photos showing the passports of seven Russian sailors.
Russian naval industry officials suggested that the crew was larger than that, putting the number between 11 and 16.
Nika Spirit was arrested by SBU earlier in the day when she sailed to Izmail. Kiev maintains that the ship was blocking the passage of Ukrainian warships during a meeting in the middle of the sea in the Kerch Strait last November. Ukrainian police searched and seized documents aboard the tanker. They also questioned the crew before letting them go.