Putin Says ‘Too Early’ to Release Captured Ukrainian Sailors

December 2, 2018 Updated: December 2, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said it is “too early” to return Ukrainian sailors and naval vessels seized by Russian forces in the Sea of Azov, adding that no top-level discussions had taken place about their possible release.

The Russian president said bilateral talks with Ukraine are not currently held but that contacts between the two countries had not been cut off completely, according to Russia’s state news agency Tass.

“As for top-level contacts, I am not against them. Yes, indeed, the talks haven’t taken place, but this doesn’t mean that we ceased all contact,” Putin said during a Dec. 1 press conference in Argentina.

Russia is resisting international calls to release three Ukrainian naval ships that its border patrols fired upon and seized in the strait near Russian-annexed Crimea last weekend.

Putin spoke to reporters after the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, where President Donald Trump canceled a meeting with the Russian leader because of Moscow’s refusal to release the 24 Ukrainians.

“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Nov. 29. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

After Trump canceled the meeting, the Russian leader said there were no preconditions for future bilateral talks.

“It is regrettable that we can’t succeed in holding a full-scale meeting, which is long due,” Putin said, adding that issues of strategic stability would be of paramount importance.

Prisoner Swap

Reporters at the G-20 meeting in Argentina asked the Russian leader if he would consider exchanging the captive sailors for Russians in Ukrainian detention.

“We are not considering a swap and Ukraine did not raise this issue, and it’s too early to talk about that,” Putin said, according to the Guardian. “They are still being investigated.”

“We need to establish the fact that this was a provocation by the Ukrainian government and we need to put all these things on paper,” Putin said, according to the report.

“The current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this at all,” Putin said. “As long as they stay in power, war will continue. Why? Because when you have provocations, such hostilities like what just happened in the Black Sea … you can always use war to justify your economic failures.”

Martial Law

Ukrainian lawmakers approved the imposition of a 30-day period of martial law on Nov. 26 after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned of the “extremely serious” threat of a Russia-led land invasion.

“Russia has been waging a hybrid war against our country for a fifth year. But with an attack on Ukrainian military boats it moved to a new stage of aggression,” Poroshenko said.

On Nov. 29, Poroshenko accused Putin of wanting to annex all of Ukraine and called for NATO to deploy warships to a sea shared by the two nations.

Ukraine has also barred Russian men between 16 and 60 from crossing its borders, citing the desire to prevent the formation of Russia-led “private armies” in the country.

Putin has accused the Ukrainian government of provoking an incident as a distraction from domestic problems.

Conflicting Accounts

Moscow has said the clash that has sparked the current crisis took place inside Russia’s territorial waters.

Ukraine denies this account and said its vessels notified the Russian maritime authorities of their intention of going through the strait. Kyiv said the Russian forces opened fire on its vessels after they had turned around and were heading away from the strait into the open waters of the Black Sea.

An analysis by the Bellingcat investigative journalism agency suggests that the Ukrainian vessels may have been in Russian territorial waters at the time the tugboat was rammed, but under a 2003 agreement, Ukrainian ships had right of access through the strait.

The agency also claims evidence provided by Russia and Ukraine suggests the Ukrainian gunboat may have been fired on when it was already in international waters.

There has been growing hostility between Ukraine and Russia since Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Russia has also supported separatists in Ukraine’s east with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons. Fighting there has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 but eased somewhat after a 2015 truce.

Reuters contributed to this report.