Ukraine’s Christmas markets may be in full swing, but the season isn’t feeling particularly festive this year as after 24 Ukrainian sailors were attacked and captured by Russia last month in the Sea of Azov amid the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilize the region, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin.
"With a level of contempt and disregard for international law with which the world is sadly all too familiar, Russia has sought to present our captured servicemen as 'criminals.' It blocked consular access, a direct violation of international laws, and gave us no information of their welfare for 11 days," Klimkin wrote in an op-ed for politico.eu.
But no crime has taken place, the minister stresses, noting that Ukrainian ships were navigating sea routes where freedom of navigation is guaranteed by international maritime law.
"This is not an opinion but an indisputable fact. The only “crime” to have taken place was that perpetrated by Russian forces, which fired on and then seized Ukrainian ships and their crews in open waters," wrote Klimkin.
He underlined the fact that Russia’s "jaw-dropping" lack of respect for the international maritime law is a "significant and dangerous challenge to all law abiding countries."
In May last year, the Kremlin opened a 12-mile bridge over the Kerch Straits, the waterway connecting occupied Crimea with the Russian mainland. Putin is now using it as strategic tool to block navigation on a vitally important sea route.
This is a major threat for Ukraine, as its Sea of Azov ports, including Mariupol and Berdyansk, are responsible for an important portion of the country's international trade.
"With this latest attack, Putin "effectively has his hands around Ukraine’s throat and is tightening his grip. His ultimate goal is to suffocate and silence us; to see us fail so that he can subsume our country back into a new, emboldened Russian Empire," the foreign minister wrote.
Klimkin emphasizes that the assault is first and foremost an attack on the Western values that Ukrainians share. Ukrainian people's resolute choice "to look westward — to the EU, to NATO, to the transatlantic community— is anathema to Putin. He cannot countenance or accept this, which is why he will do whatever he can to destroy Ukraine."
The added benefit, for Putin, is that by keeping the spotlight on us he directs attention away from his significant domestic challenges.
Klimkin notes that the international community must retain solidarity and continue to "apply pressure at every level to ensure that, at a minimum, the Kremlin respects international law and ensures our Ukrainian prisoners are treated humanely."
"We must also pay attention to the greater Russian threat, which remains hybrid and includes disinformation, social unrest and election meddling. The stakes are increasingly high: As Ukraine prepares for elections next year, Putin will be looking to destabilize, delegitimize and disrupt the process at every possible turn," the foreign minister wrote.