MOSCOW – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has agreed to Germany’s proposal to send German and French observers to confirm if Moscow is guaranteeing freedom of navigation to ships crossing the Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday.
Lavrov said during a joint conference in Moscow with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, that Chancellor Angela Merkel had proposed the Russian president to allow German observers to enter the Kerch Strait area to observe if the strait’s freedom of passage for shipping was being exercised, to which Putin agreed.
Lavrov added that soon after, Merkel contacted Putin again to ask if French observers could accompany the German fact-finding mission, a request that was also greenlit by Putin.
“However, over a month has passed and we are still awaiting their arrival,” Russia’s foreign minister added.
Lavrov then explained said inspection could take place “at a moment’s notice” but that if the German proposal required the Ukraine’s consensus, as Maas had implied, the German initiative might stagnate.
In any case, Lavrov said that the freedom of navigation should also consider certain security guidelines ensuring the safety of the new Russian-built 18-kilometer (11.2-mile) long twin bridge opened in May 2018 linking the disputed peninsula of Crimea with mainland Russia.
On the other hand, Maas explained that Berlin and Paris wanted to verify that freedom of passage across the Kerch Strait was guaranteed, although Kiev has not denounced any further shipping incidents in the past weeks.
“I think we must discuss this matter in the next weeks. Today, we haven’t reached an agreement but we remain open to dialogue,” the German foreign minister added.
On Nov. 25, three Ukrainian boats were apprehended by the Russian coastguard for violating territorial waters near the Crimean peninsula, to which Kiev responded by accusing Russia of aggression and declaring a state of emergency in 10 Ukrainian provinces.
Amid the international community’s unanimous condemnation, Putin defended his right to use force (live fire) against the Ukrainian ships and the 24 enlisted men onboard, who were captured and currently remain in pre-trial detention at a Moscow prison.
Ukraine accuses Russia of restricting shipping across the Kerch Strait in an attempt to place the Sea of Azov, the world’s shallowest sea, under Russian control, while Moscow claims it simply wants to guarantee the safety of its Crimean bridge.
Tensions between the two neighbors and former members of the Soviet Union flared up after Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, in what was widely seen as a violation of international law.
The move came in the aftermath of a wave of protest and unrest across Ukraine that culminated in the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was closely aligned with Russia.
The eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk later declared their independence from Kiev and have since been at the epicenter of an ongoing armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-separatist rebels backed by Moscow.