More than ‘deep concern’ needed as Russia illegally imprisons 24 more Ukrainians after flagrant act of war
The number of Ukrainians whom Moscow is holding illegally in occupied Crimea and Russia has risen to nearly 100, with the last 24 men seized after an open act of warfare on 25 November. Although the international community has condemned Russia and called on it to release the men, it looks dangerously as though reaction is to be confined to expressions of deep concern and calls “on both sides” to deescalate the situation. This is despite the fact that Russia has not hidden behind ‘little green men’ this time, and is evidently trying to seize control of the Azov Sea in violation of a bilateral agreement and international law. The consequences, if allowed to succeed, are most catastrophic for Ukraine, but will not stop there.
On 27 November, 15 Ukrainian sailors from the three naval boats which Russia attacked on Sunday were remanded in custody for two months, with the nine other officers due in Russian-controlled Crimean ‘courts’ on Wednesday. All the men, including the three sailors, one of whom is just 18, wounded after Russians fired at the retreating boats, could face six-year sentences for what Russia is claiming was ‘illegally crossing the Russian border by a group of people’.
The men are represented by eight Ukrainian lawyers, most of whom are experienced in defending the ever-increasing number of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners in occupied Crimea. There were a large number of Crimean Tatars and others who came to the ‘court’ to show their support on Tuesday, and efforts are underway to ensure that the men receive the urgently-needed food and other items that their families in mainland Ukraine are unable to get to them.
As reported, Russia’s efforts to blame Ukraine for its attack on Ukrainian naval boats included the use of illegal methods to force three of the detained men to state falsely on camera that they had entered ‘Russian territorial waters’.
It was therefore an excellent step that Ukraine’s Naval Commander Ihor Voronchenko passed, via their lawyers, a letter to each of the men in which he assured them that the Naval command understands the methods Russia uses to extract such ‘testimony’ and that all efforts were being taken, including involving international bodies, to secure their release.
“You acted within the framework of the law, professionally, and in accordance with international maritime law and treaties in place. The law is on our side and this is understood by the entire world. It is normal to experience fear. The main thing is to believe in your own strength of spirit, to retain your dignity and understand that all of Ukraine and all of the civilized world are behind you. I am proud of each of you. Thank you for your loyalty to the Homeland and know that we are doing everything to ensure your return to your loved ones who await your homecoming”.
Two of the 24 men detained are members of Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU], which Russia has tried to make something of. What exactly is never quite clear and seems especially inexplicable given that all border guards in Russia are part of the Russian security service, or FSB.
As well as the constant attempts since 25 November to claim that this attack was in fact Ukrainian ‘provocation’ with American or NATO backing, the FSB came up with some new ‘arguments’ on 27 November.
None bears any scrutiny. There was no excuse for Russia to block access to the Azov Sea, and no edited and selective citing of international documents can change that.
Nor is the itemizing of weapons allegedly found on board the illegally seized boats of any relevance when it was Russia who fired directly at three naval boats which were not presenting any danger to them.
The third ‘discovery’ was a supposed plan for passing from Odesa (on the Black Sea) to Berdyansk (on the Azov Sea) “in a secretive way”.
Yet again the aim seems to be to throw out as many irrelevant threads as possible so that in the ensuing chaos, some may believe that there are ‘two sides’ to this story.
There is only one. However many SBU officers were on board the naval boat, and whether they blew horns all the way or tried to quietly pass through the Kerch Strait was absolutely not Russia’s business. The navy could, furthermore, have whatever weapons they chose on board. This cannot change the fact that it was Russia that opened fire without any provocation, and without Ukraine retaliating.
Yet most world leaders have called on both sides to show restraint, as though Ukraine had done anything else. Whether or not the limited martial law for one month in 10 regions was required can be argued, but this was a response to an act of military aggression by Russia, not an offensive.
The call by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for “de-escalation and dialogue” seems ominously reminiscent of the line taken by the West from Russia’s invasion of Crimea and mounting aggression in Eastern Europe until the downing by Russian or pro-Russian militants, using a Russian BUK missile, of Malaysian airliner MH17 on July 17, 2014. It was only after that heinous war crime, which killed 298 adults and children, that the West introduced real sanctions.
Dialogue thus far has failed to release around seventy Ukrainian political prisoners, and that figure has now risen dramatically. In the case of the 24 men now imprisoned, the Third Geneva Convention clearly identifies them as prisoners of war, yet Russia is using criminal charges against them.
The West can engage in dialogue, but it needs to be about the sanctions and other consequences that will be borne if Russia does not release the prisoners and put an end to this new level of aggression. Moscow has made it quite clear that it heeds nothing else.
The three men in hospital are:
Andriy Eider (who is shortly to turn 19)
The other imprisoned naval officers