OPINION: It’s Time For The West To Condemn Russia’s Unlawful Detention Of 24 Ukrainian Sailors

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Alexis Mrachek Heritage Foundation
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Five years ago this month, while the world’s eyes were glued to the Sochi Olympics, Moscow mobilized “little green men” onto the Crimean peninsula to begin its short, illegal process of annexing it from Ukraine.

At first, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied these soldiers were Russian and called them “local self-defense units.” But later on, he proudly admitted they were Russian troops.

In April 2014, Russian soldiers, many of whom were also little green men, began seizing buildings in the Donbas region of Ukraine. This only heightened tensions in the region since Russian dissidents and separatist forces had started fighting Ukrainian soldiers in prior months. A full-scale war broke out in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. It has claimed more than 10,000 lives, at least 2,800 of whom were civilians, and displaced over 1.5 million. And there appears to be no end to the war in sight.

Conflict between Russia and Ukraine has continued over the past five years, ebbing and flowing. Russia essentially treats the Black Sea as a Russian lake through its strong militarization of it. And in November 2018, conflict in the Black Sea boiled over.

On Nov. 25, 2018, Russian FSB border-patrol boats blocked three Ukrainian navy ships’ passage through the Kerch Strait, a narrow body of water separating the Azov Sea from the Black Sea. Russian forces then opened fire on the ships, boarded and seized them, and captured 24 Ukrainian sailors in the process.

The sailors hadn’t violated the law. The 2003 Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov provides both Ukraine and Russia legal access to the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. Yet Russian authorities charged the sailors with “illegally crossing” Russia’s border on the Black Sea.

After placing the sailors in a Moscow detention center, Russian authorities said they would detain the sailors for two months, but on Jan. 16, the Lefortovo District Court extended their detention to April 24.

A couple of the sailors’ mothers were able to briefly see them on their court date in mid-January, but other than that instance, the sailors have been kept in seclusion in Moscow.

The soldiers’ detention is a reminder that Russia’s war with Ukraine continues on.

Ukraine holds its presidential elections next month, and Russia likely will attempt to meddle in any possible way. Thus, especially now, Western support for Ukraine is vital.

The Western community so far has taken action in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. In the days following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the U.S. and EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and Canada followed suit just after. These Crimea-related sanctions remain in place today.

Furthermore, the U.S. Coast Guard this year will be providing two patrol boats to Ukraine in order to deter further Russian aggression in the Black Sea.

But today, 24 Ukrainian soldiers remain in Russian custody, and the West has been all but silent in addressing it. Russia’s detainment of them is a violation of human rights. The West must speak up about it, because it is what a true ally would do.

Alexis Mrachek is a research assistant for Russia and Eurasia in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.