US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker demands that Russia release the Ukrainian sailors captured in the Kerch Strait at the end of November before Christmas or New Year.
During an interview with the Voice of America, Volker explained that the US and its western allies are considering a number of ways to prevent new instances of Russia’s “unilateral control” of the shared waters of the Sea of Azov.
“We do not accept or agree to the annexation of Crimea claimed by Russia,” he said, reiterating the United States’ stance on the developments which took place in Crimea in 2014.
Pointing out that the Sea of Azov is subject to a bilateral agreement between Ukraine and Russia, Volker said: “We do not agree that the territorial waters around Crimea are Russian. They are Ukrainian. For this reason, we do not agree that the Kerch Strait is completely Russian. We believe that this is a case of joint sovereignty.”
According to Volker, Russia’s actions during the confrontation on November 25, when it fired on and ultimately captured three Ukrainian military ships that were trying to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, constitute a “clear violation of international law and a violation of the bilateral agreement with Ukraine”.
He says that the US insists that Russia return the ships and the 24 Ukrainian military personnel and intelligence agents who were arrested by Russian special forces.
Volker also added that the US’s European Allies may ban Russian ships arriving from Crimea or the Sea of Azov from entering European ports. Such a proposal was recently put forward by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, head of Germany’s ruling CDU party and likely successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“This would be a very powerful and very original step,” Volker told Voice of America, “Let’s see if they go for it”.
He said that the US wants such measures to be taken in order to pressurize Russia, until “the moment comes when Russia wants to negotiate in order to work out a solution”.
Another possible measure would be to cut off Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments network, which is regulated by Belgian laws and accelerates international transactions by sending payment instructions to financial institutions in various countries.
“People call this the “nuclear option,” Volker noted. “It will result in costs for all the parties involved. Great costs for Russia, but also great costs for allies. In the end, we need to retain the possibility of such an option, because we cannot see ahead how Russia is going to take new aggressive steps against neighbors such as this.”
In Volker’s opinion, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are intended to influence the elections in the country which are due to take place in March 2019.
The special representative warned that it would be “extremely reckless” for Russia to take even more aggressive steps in Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian military is now far more capable than before,” he said. “This will be much more expensive experience. They will lose the last opportunity to deny their guilt, which they are grasping at now, and Ukraine will acquire major support.”