Russia and Ukraine Tensions Return As Oil Tanker Conflicts Spread from Middle East to Europe

Ukraine has detained a Russian oil tanker, arguing that the ship was involved in an incident between the two countries at sea last year. The incident also marked the opening of a new front in a series of at least three incidents this month alone involving oil and tankers that demonstrates the hazards faced by commercial vessels amid global rivalries.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said in a statement Thursday that it had detained the Russian tanker Nika Spirit, previously known as Neyma, at the southwestern port of Izmail. The statement referenced a confrontation last November that saw Russia's own Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Service fire upon three Ukrainian navy ships, accusing them of violating regulations as they transitted the contested Kerch Strait and seizing the vessels along with their crew in a move Kiev and Western allies including Washington have called illegal.

"Contrary to the norms of international maritime law, servicemen of the frontier troops of the FSB of Russia illegally, with the use of weapons, blocked the movement of Ukrainian warships during the passage of the Kerch-Yenikalskyi Canal in the Kerch Strait with the help of the tanker 'NEYMA,'" the statement said.

"Such unlawful actions contributed to violence, with the use of weapons, along with the arrest and capture of Ukrainian warships with 24 crew members by Russia's FSB border guards," it added, accusing Russia of renaming the Neyma "with the purpose of concealing involvement in illegal actions and the act of aggression which took place on November 25, 2018."

ukraine security russia oil tanker
Members of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) detain Russian oil tanker Nika Spirit and its crew in the port of Izmail, Ukraine, July 24. The ship was accused of assisting Russian security forces attack and seize three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crew during a confrontation in the disputed Kerch Strait in November 2018. Security Service of Ukraine

The SBU said it had begun interrogating crewmembers and seizing "documents necessary for establishing the truth in the proceedings" regarding last year's incident, such as ship logs, communications and other relevant information. Meanwhile, Moscow warned of a breach of international law may have been committed and Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee for Russia's lower house of parliament, called the move "an act of state piracy" that was "unlawful" on Twitter.

His counterpart in Russia's upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, also criticized the move on social media, calling it a poor start for already-strained ties between Moscow and Kiev under recently-elected Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky.

"The circumstances must promptly be clarified and Zelensky's position needs an immediate explanation. Which now is the real Ukraine now, when it rattles sabers or talks of peace?" Kosachev wrote in a Facebook post. "The moment of truth has come."

Moscow and Kiev's relations soured with a 2014 revolution that ousted a Kremlin-leaning leader in Ukraine and led to mass unrest, during which Russia exerted control over the Crimean Peninsula, which was later annexed as part of a controversial referendum. A separatist insurgency that Ukraine and its partners blame on Russa also broke out in the east and continues to this day.

Russian Human Rights High Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova phoned her Ukrainian counterpart Lyudmila Denisova, calling her "to clarify the circumstances of the vessel's detention, as well as the crew: whether there are citizens of the Russian Federation on board, how many are there; whether seafarers are provided with consular support, whether their rights are violated and whether they receive the necessary food and drinking water, whether crew members need medical assistance"—answers Denisova reportedly promised to seek.

Eventually, the Russian embassy in Ukraine reported that "the crew of the Russian tanker in the port of Izmail is going home," but "the ship itself remains in Ukraine." While Moscow and Kiev have conducted negotiations over the release of the Ukrainian warships Nikopol and Berdyansk as well as tugboat Yana Kapu, two more ships—both oil tankers—were also being held by rivals thousands of miles away.

iran navy uk oil tanker gulf
Iran's Revolutionary Guards detain the U.K.-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker, July 21, off the shores of Bandar Abbas, Iran. The ship's seizure came weeks after the U.K. captured Iran's Panamanian-flagged Grace 1 supertanker in the Strait of Gibraltar. Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News AgencyAFP/Getty Images

The Strait of Hormuz is the world's busiest oil chokepoint and the U.S. has blamed Iran for unclaimed attacks in the nearby waters of the Gulf of Oman, deepening a feud already worsened by President Donald Trump's decision last year to abandon a 2015 nuclear deal and impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. While the U.S. sent more military assets with the stated aim of protecting commercial traffic, it was the United Kingdom earlier this month that seized an Iranian supertanker accused of attempting to transport oil to Syria, an alleged violation of European Union sanctions.

The Grace 1 was captured by the U.K.'s Royal Marines as it attempted to transit the U.K.-controlled Strait of Gibraltar that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Last week, Iran's Revolutionary Guards apprehended the U.K.-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and brought it to the port of Bandar Abbas, accusing it of endangering maritime traffic and not following protocol in a move widely seen as retaliation.

Though London was a signatory to the nuclear agreement and, like its other remaining parties, still supported, the U.K. was said by Spain—which does not recognize U.K. control of Gibraltar—to have acted upon the U.S.' orders. Russia, also a nuclear accord member, has sided in the affair with Iran, which, like Slutsky, has referred to the move as "piracy."

In a separate incident related to the U.S. campaign isolate Iran internationally, two Iranian ships, Bavand and Termeh, in Brazils' southern port of Paranaguá have been refused refueling services by the state oil company for fear of economic punishment from the Trump administration. The ships were set to return with tens of thousands of tones of corn but cannot make the long return journey without fuel, with which a Brazilian court has since ordered they should be provided, as reported Thursday by Radio Fardo, a branch of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.