Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 24.12.2018
Ukraine will have two Christmas holidays this season, on December 25 and January 7, but Ukrainian prisoners of war now being held in Moscow are unlikely to celebrate either one of them. The Russian Federation – at war with Ukraine – abducted 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors on November 25 and has been tormenting them since. The Putin regime is unlikely to heed demands from the international community that it free Ukrainian captives, release Ukrainian naval vessels, and lift the blockade of the Sea of Azov. The misery of Putin’s War will spoil this Christmas for millions of Europeans, as it did four times previous since the Russian Federation’s invasion of Europe in Crimea and Donbas began.
Russian forces attacked three vessels of the Ukrainian Navy on November 25. The Ukrainian boats were making a peaceful and normal transit from Odesa, Ukraine to Mariupol, Ukraine through the international Kerch Strait. In a purposeful and unprovoked attack, Russian forces rammed the Ukrainian boats, shot at them from the sea and air, boarded them and captured their crews. 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors were taken first to Crimea, Ukraine – temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation. They were then taken to Moscow, where they are now.
The Russian Federation is at war with Ukraine. A state of war has existed since the Russian Federation invaded Crimea in February 2014 and invaded Donbas in April 2014. Ukrainian Navy sailors were captured on 25 November 2018 in an act of war committed by the Russian Federation. The 24 military personnel held captive by the Russians are prisoners of war and are protected by the Third Geneva Convention.
The Russians are violating the Geneva Convention with respect to the 24 Ukrainian POWs taken on November 25. Russian authorities refuse to allow delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross to see the captives. The Geneva Convention protects POWs from intimidation, insults, and public curiosity, yet the Russians have put some Ukrainian servicemen on television to read forced ‘confessions.’ POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking a direct part in hostilities and any detention cannot be a form of punishment. Despite this, Russian officials have charged the Ukrainian POWs with a so-called criminal offence: “violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”
The Ukrainian POWs are kept in isolation in Lefortovo prison and in Matrosskaya Tishina prison hospital. Three of the Ukrainian sailors wounded by Russian fire in the November 25 attack still require medical care. Kremlin regime officials attempt to coerce the Ukrainians into giving ‘confessions’ to crimes. Nevertheless, most of the captured Ukrainian sailors have identified themselves as prisoners of war and demanded they be treated in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker says he hopes the Russian Federation will release captive Ukrainian sailors “as expeditiously as possible, ideally before Christmas.” Experience with the Russian aggressor teaches, though, that this is unlikely to be the case. Russian sham courts are proceeding as they usually do when Kremlin agents abduct Ukrainian citizens: they are extending “pre-trial detention” and ignoring all entreaties to release their hostages.
The US State Department and the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have both called on the Russian Federation to release captive Ukrainian sailors without any conditions. But even when this “call” is increased to a “demand” it is not enough to move the Putin regime. Western democracies must back their words with actions that will oblige the Russian Federation to free Ukrainian POWs, release Ukrainian boats, and lift the blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov.
If the Russian Federation is not punished for its act of war on November 25, then Ukrainian Navy sailors will remain hostages and the already-prepared Russian military offensive against Ukraine will likely start.