MOSCOW — Ukraine seized a Russian tanker anchored in the Black Sea on Thursday, freeing the crew but holding onto the vessel in apparent retaliation for Russia’s capture of Ukrainian ships and sailors last year.
It also posed a major test for Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The actor-turned-politician has pledged to seek peace efforts with the Kremlin after more than five years of conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s SBU security service said the Nika Spirit was identified as being involved in the interception of Ukrainian vessels on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait near Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. Twenty-four crew members aboard the Ukrainian vessels remain in detention.
A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was looking into the Black Sea seizure and would take “appropriate measures” in response, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Before the Russian crew was released, the Kremlin denounced the taking of “Russian hostages” and warned of rapid “consequences.”
Russia’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, said the 10 crew members — all Russian citizens — were released without charges, Interfax reported. They were scheduled to go by bus to Moldova, where they planned to fly to Moscow.
The ship, however, remained impounded off Ukraine’s port of Izmail.
The seizure of the Russian tanker echoes tensions in the Persian Gulf, where Iran seized a British-flagged tanker last week. Iran’s move came in response to the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British forces earlier this month.
It was unclear whether Ukraine’s tanker seizure could derail efforts to engineer a prisoner swap that may include the 24 detained Ukrainian sailors.
In their first phone call, Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed prisoner swaps as part of a broader detente in relations. Zelensky’s spokesperson said at the time the 24 sailors were high on the agenda.
But Zelensky has found himself responding to moves by Moscow from the moment he won the Ukrainian presidency in April.
Just days after the Ukrainian vote, Putin issued a decree simplifying the Russian passport process for Ukrainians in regions under control of Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In Kiev, Putin’s declaration was interpreted as a direct challenge to Zelensky even before he had taken the oath of office. Putin officially signed the decree last week, just before Ukrainian parliamentary elections.
In turn, Zelensky announced he wanted citizenship requirements to be simplified for foreigners who had been persecuted or denied their rights.
There are signs that relations are improving in some areas, though. Ukrainian and separatist forces agreed to pull back from a front-line crossing point in June.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of Russian senate’s foreign affairs committee, called the Ukrainian seizure of the vessel an act of piracy aimed to derail normalization of Russian-Ukrainian relations, Interfax reported.
“This will more than likely complicate the situation,” he said.
The Nika Spirit shares an internationally recognized identification code with the tanker Neyma, which was used by the Russian coast guard in November to block three Ukrainian navy vessels from entering the Kerch Strait.
The strait runs between Crimea and the Russian mainland into the Azov Sea. A 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement designates both bodies as shared internal waters. Since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia has asserted greater control over the Kerch Strait.
In May, the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors. Moscow refused to comply, saying the court lacked jurisdiction .
Stern reported from Kiev.