Ukraine and Russia clash in The Hague over Black and Asov Sea dispute

Roman Kolodkin (R), head of the legal department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Olena Zerkal (L) state secretary of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine attend the ruling of the International Court of Justice on Ukraine's request for emergency order to stop Russia financing, supporting, and arming rebels in the East, during the ICJ session in The Hague, Netherlands, 19 April 2017. [EPA/JERRY LAMPEN]

Ukraine and Russia traded barbs this week in front of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague over Russia’s alleged violations of waters around Ukraine’s Crimea region in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.

The international arbitration panel kicked off a series of preliminary hearings this week after Ukraine filed the case at the PCA in September 2016, accusing Russia of violating the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the region.

Kyiv asked the court to “enforce its maritime rights by ordering the Russian Federation to cease its internationally wrongful actions in the relevant waters”.

Russia has been accused of illegally restricting the passage of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait, which is the sole passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, after its seizure of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin personally opened a bridge over the strait in May 2018.

Kyiv’s series of legal complaints against Moscow came after Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and captured 24 sailors near the Kerch Strait in November, prompting international condemnation.

Both NATO and EU have called for de-escalation in the region and urged Russia to restore freedom of passage via the waterway.

Last month, the the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg ruled that Russia must “immediately” release the Ukrainian sailors and vessels.

This week, the PCA started deliberations on the “dispute concerning coastal state rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait” on Monday (10 June) with Russia’s statements, followed by Ukraine’s yesterday.

During its opening arguments on Monday, Russia pressed the court to throw out the case as the court “does not have the jurisdiction to determine Ukraine’s claims” as the case would be outside of the scope of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Despite the high regard with which Russia regards this tribunal, it cannot determine which state is sovereign over Crimea,” Dmitry Lobach, the Russian legal representative for the case, told the PCA.

Ukrainian deputy foreign minister, Olena Zerkal, told the court that Russia’s objections to the panel’s jurisdiction were “without legal merit”, accusing Moscow of  acting like an imperial power in the region.

“Russia’s approach is based on the imperial historical narrative pushed by its leaders. In the version of reality presented yesterday by Russia, nothing has changed since the Russian empire,” she told the court.

“This explains why Russia believes that it alone can make the rules, but it can’t.”

“Russia built an illegal bridge across an international strait, it harasses ships of all countries as they navigate to and from Ukrainian ports, it steals our energy resources from within our maritime areas, it excludes our fishermen from the waters they have always fished in,” Zerkal told the PCA.

It is not yet clear when the court will issue a decision on jurisdiction in the case. The second round of the hearing is scheduled to take place on Thursday and Friday (13-14 June) this week.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the situation in Ukraine during next weeks gathering in Brussels ahead of the European Council later that week.

The latest draft of conclusions seen by EURACTIV suggests that EU leaders will “express its utmost concern” over Russia’s decree on simplified issuing of passports in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Kuhansk regions and possibly “consider further options, including non-recognition of illegally issued Russian passports”.

Last week, Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during his first foreign trip backed the country’s pro-Western trajectory in Brussels, calling for more pressure to be exerted on Russia and underlining Ukraine’s strategy of seeking full-fledged NATO membership.

Ukraine's new president vows pro-Western trajectory in Brussels

Ukraine’s strategy of seeking full-fledged NATO membership remains unchanged, new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Tuesday (5 June), during his first trip to Brussels.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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