Defence secretary Gavin Williamson meets families of Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia

'We need to demonstrate our right to be able to come to ports such as Odessa, for freedom of navigation, for freedom for navies to be able to operate in the Black Sea'

Kim Sengupta
Odessa, Ukraine
Saturday 22 December 2018 01:56
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Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks to his Ukrainian counterpart Stepan Poltorak in Odessa.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks to his Ukrainian counterpart Stepan Poltorak in Odessa.

Britain’s defence secretary met the families of Ukrainian sailors captured by Russian forces in the Black Sea during a visit to the home port of the boats seized in last month’s dramatic confrontation.

Gavin Williamson’s arrival in Odessa, a city under martial law, came at a time of spiralling tension between Kiev and Moscow two days after the Ukrainian government announced that it intended to send warships into the Sea to assert freedom of navigation to its ports which it says are effectively under blockade.

The defence secretary, the first minister from a Nato state to visit Odessa, went on board Royal Navy ship, HMS Echo, which arrived following the clash on water and claims by the Kiev government that the Kremlin was building up troops and armour along the border in preparation for an invasion.

Russia has charged that the Ukrainian plan to dispatch the warships, which would challenge Moscow’s control of the Kercch Strait, as an act of provocation and has also warned against Nato against what it terms is encroaching on its territorial waters.

Mr Williamson, however, stated that he intended to send a Royal Navy warship into the Black Sea next year because of “concerns about what Russia is trying to do”.

He said it was “incumbent on all free nations, all Nato nations, all European Union nations need to be standing side by side in this”.

He added: “We also want to demonstrate our rights to be able to come to ports such as Odessa, for freedom of navigation, for freedom for navies to be able to operate in the Black Sea. This isn’t Russia’s sea, this is an international sea. We need to demonstrate our right to be able to come to ports such as Odessa, for freedom of navigation, for freedom for navies to be able to operate in the Black Sea. This isn’t Russia’s sea, this is an international sea.”

Some of the families of the captured Ukrainian crew members said they welcomed the show of support from the UK. They have written letters to the Queen and Theresa May seeking their help in getting the men, some of whom were injured when their boats were boarded by Russian forces.

The letter to the Queen, which was handed to Judith Gough, the British ambassador to Ukraine states: “Madam, we ask your help and support in seeking the release of our sons, husbands and fathers from Russian captivity. We simply all sincerely hope that your reputation and humanitarian influence will be heard and our loved ones will return safe and sound. We ask you dear madam to use your indisputable authority for the quick return home of our relatives illegal captured by the Russian Federation.”

Viktor Soroka, whose 27-year-old son Vasyl was one of those wounded said: “It is very difficult, we know that our son was hurt, but we don’t know any more details. He has been taken to a prison in Moscow we hear, but it is impossible to get any information from the Russians. Vasyl has a two year son, Mark, a little boy, and every time there is someone at the door he rushes there thinking it is his father.”

Vasyl Soroka was studying law but volunteered for the armed forces when the Ukrainian civil war started in 2014. His father said: “We are very proud of our son and we are waiting to welcome him back home, but we are also very worried about him. In the meantime we are very happy to see a British ship in Odessa. Maybe it would be possible to have a convoy of British and US ships going through the Sea. Putin only understands power; he needs to be stood up to. If my thoughts were to materialise, he would blow up into a million pieces.”

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Eleanor Novak, whose 20-year-old son Vyacheslav Zinchenko is also a captive, said: “We want to see not just him released, but all the other Ukrainians being held in Russia. We have written to the Queen because she is respected by other countries and we are hoping they can help.”

Mr Williamson, who also met Ukrainian ministers and officials declared: “What we’ve seen since 2014 is unparalleled level of aggression from Russia towards Ukraine and I don’t think any of us would ever be complacent in relation to it.... It has to be clear that President Putin’s behaviour and actions aren’t acceptable. The pressure needs to be on President Putin to come to the table and start sorting out the mess he has created through the aggressive actions of his armed forces – that is the solution to this.”

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