Moscow never claimed that it would return the Ukrainian warships involved in the Kerch Strait incident back to Kiev, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"We never denied the possibility of returning the vessels which took part in the provocation organised in November 2018 by the previous Ukrainian government back to Kiev," the ministry said in a statement published on its official Telegram page.
The ministry recalled that the Russian side had informed the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow as far back as June about the "opportunities which Kiev could use to free its sailors and ships."
Earlier Sunday, a source in Crimea’s security apparatus said that Ukraine’s Berdyansk and the Nikopol gunboats and the Yana Kapu tugboat had left port in Kerch, Russia, escorted by Russian vessels.
According to the source, the military vessels and tug will be handed over to the Ukrainian side in neutral waters. According to Crimean lawmaker Dmitry Belik, they will not be accompanied by any military ships, and will be met by Ukrainian vessels without weapons onboard.
Reports of Imminent Handover
Earlier, Ukrainian media reported, citing satellite data, that a pair of Ukrainian tugboats and a search and rescue vessel had been sent out to receive the three detained ships. According to reports, the handover is expected to take place at sea about 60 miles off the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.
Later Sunday, Russia’s Zvezda television channel published video footage of the detained Ukrainian vessels passing through the Crimean Bridge on route to the Black Sea.
Kerch Strait Drama
The Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yana Kapu were detained in the Kerch Strait seaway by Russian border guards in November 2018 after violating Russia’s territorial waters and proceeding to engage in dangerous manoeuvres over the space of several hours. The ships were bordered, with 24 military personnel, including two Ukrainian intelligence officers, detained. These personnel were transferred back to Ukraine in September as part of a prisoner exchange programme.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the Kerch Strait incident a “provocation” which he said had been “prepared in advance” by then-President Petro Poroshenko “as a pretext to introduce martial law in the country.” Poroshenko signed a decree to impose martial law in a number of Ukrainian regions in late 2018, shortly before the elections the following spring. He was defeated by opposition candidate Volodymyr Zelensky in elections in April.