Russia, Ukraine Trade Barbs Over Condition of Returned Naval Ships

Ukraine says three captured naval vessels returned by Russia earlier this week were in poor condition and stripped of key components.After inspecting the returned vessels, the chief of Ukraine’s navy, Vice Adm. Ihor Voronchenko, was quoted by Ukraine’s “4th Channel” TV as saying the ships’ return to safe harbor had been hampered by their poor condition.  “They do not move on their own,” the vice admiral said, according to the report.  “The Russians ruined them — even took off the lamps, power outlets and toilets. We will show the whole world the Russian barbarism towards them.”Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy later inspected the ships upon arrival at the port of Ochakiv and reportedly said repairing them would take three months. The Ukrainian leader also demanded Russia return missing components.Back in Moscow, officials from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, suggested sabotage.Russia’s RIA-Novosti wire service quoted FSB officials as claiming the ships had been returned in “normal condition, and plumbing equipment in working order.” The FSB also provided what it said was video of the ships in what appeared to be reasonable condition, noting that Ukrainian officials had signed off on the exchange in neutral waters Monday without registering complaints.“If Ukraine managed to ruin the vessels and their bathroom equipment as they crossed the coast of Crimea to Ochakiv, that’s Ukraine’s problem,” said a Russian FSB official, according to a separate report by Russia’s Interfax news service.Russian media reported earlier that the Ukrainian ships had been returned stripped of their guns — a detail that has yet to be confirmed by either side.Misplaced optimism?The return of the vessels had been widely viewed as a trust-building measure ahead of a December summit in Paris aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in the Donbas that has left some 13,000 people dead over the past five years.   Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin have both indicated they would join French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the event — billed as the latest attempt to jump-start peace negotiations after several previous failed attempts by the so-called “quartet” to end the fighting between Ukraine government forces and Moscow-backed rebels.Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits the port of Ochakiv, Nov. 20, 2019, to see the three Ukraine’s naval ships, captured in the Kerch Strait in Nov. 2018 and then returned by Russia.Zelenskiy had signaled the return of the three Ukrainian vessels as the latest in a series of small step measures aimed at normalizing relations with Russia and ending the war in the Donbas.  “Step by step, we’re making peace, seeking diplomatic solutions, and fighting for our Ukraine to be united once again,” wrote Zelenskiy in a post to Twitter just hours before he reviewed the ships’ condition for himself.The ships and their crew were seized by Russia after its border patrol fired on the vessels off the coast of Crimea in November 2018 — arguing the ships had violated what had become Russia’s territorial waters after the Kremlin’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.The incident caused outrage in Kyiv and beyond, with the United States launching a new round of sanctions targeting Russia over its military actions in Ukraine.Moscow portrayed the incident as a ploy by Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, to stoke nationalist sentiment ahead of elections he would ultimately lose by a landslide to Zelenskiy.Zelenskiy has made ending the war in east Ukraine a top priority of what he says will be his sole term in office.Among his successes thus far is a negotiated deal with Putin that saw the release of the Ukrainian ships’ 24 crew members as part of a wider prisoner swap last September. 

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