Russia returns three Ukrainian navy boats seized in Strait of Kerch ahead of Putin-Zelenskiy meeting

Russia has returned three naval vessels it seized from Ukraine a year ago in an apparent bid to ease tensions ahead of a crucial summit between the countries next month. 

Ukraine’s navy confirmed that two gun boats and a tug "had begun moving towards mainland Ukraine" by Monday afternoon. 

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The Berdyansk, Nikopol, and Yany Kapu were sailing from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Mariupol, an industrial city on the Sea of Azov, when Russian forces opened fire on them and then boarded them in November last year. 

Russia claimed the ships had violated its border, while Ukraine accused Russia of breaking the treaty that guarantees free passage of Ukrainian ships through the strait.

It was one of the most serious incidents in the conflict between the two neighbours since 2015 and raised fears that Russia was determined to close the Sea of Azov to Ukrainian vessels as part of its on-going, undeclared war in eastern Ukraine, where it backs and directs two pro-Moscow separatist states.

Russia annexed Crimea in the spring of 2014 and completed a bridge across the strait linking the peninsular with the Russian mainland in 2017. 

Russia’s decision to return the vessels comes just weeks before Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, meet face to face for the first time at a summit in Paris on December 9.  

The meeting, which will be mediated by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is the highest level contact between the two sides since 2016. 

The sides have agreed several confidence building measures ahead of the meeting. Twenty four sailors seized with the vessels were released in September as part of a prisoner swap that also included Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who was arrested by Russia after it seized Crimea in 2014. 

In the past several weeks Ukrainian and Russian-controlled separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to pull-backs from a number of points on the line of contact.

Mr Zelenskiy was elected president of Ukraine in April. He promised during his electoral campaign to make ending the war with Russia in the east of the country a priority.  

More than 13,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since Russia sent covert support to stoke a separatist uprising there in April 2014. 

Large-scale fighting mostly ended when Mrs Merkel and Francois Hollande, Mr Macron’s predecessor, brokered a deal between Mr Putin and Petro Poroshenko, Mr Zelenksy’s predecessor, in February 2015. 

However, fighting along the line of contact has continued on an almost daily basis and the two sides have failed to agree on a way to implement elements of the deal designed to end the war there. 

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