MOSCOW - Russia has returned three captured Ukrainian navy ships, in what is being billed as a goodwill gesture to Kyiv ahead of international peace talks aimed at ending the war between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east.
Russia seized the ships and crew amid a firefight off the coast of Crimea in November of last year - arguing the Ukrainian vessels had illegally entered what had become de facto Russian territorial waters following the Kremlin's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
The move triggered international condemnation, as well as a new round of U.S. sanctions against Russia over the incident and fomenting the war in Ukraine.
Russia Hands Back 3 Seized Ships to Ukraine Russia's Foreign Ministry says three Ukrainian naval ships that were seized in a shooting confrontation nearly a year ago have been returned
In a statement posted to its website to announce the vessels' release, Russia's Foreign Ministry strongly defended its actions.
"Russia intends to harshly meet any provocations against its borders from here on out, including with the goal of securing the safety of sea vessels in accordance with Russian law, bilateral agreements, and norms of the rule of international law," said the statement.
Moscow also blamed the government in Kyiv for putting Ukrainian solders in harm's way and said the ships' return was possible only because a criminal investigation into the border incident had recently been completed.
For its part, the government in Kyiv confirmed the ships - two small Ukrainian armored artillery ships and a tugboat - were on their way to its port of Odessa following a handoff between Russian and Ukrainian officials in neutral waters on Monday.
In a post to Facebook, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal also said Kyiv would continue to defend Ukraine's right of passage near Crimea and seek reparations for the vessels' capture at an international hearing in the Netherlands later this week.
In a separate statement, the Kremlin denied that the timing of the ships' release was tied to a hearing at the Hague, but offered no other explanation.
Multiple Russian media reports insisted the Ukrainian ships were returned stripped of guns and documentation.
Small steps toward peace
Despite the rancor over Monday's exchange, the return of the vessels was widely viewed as the latest in a series of small confidence-building measures between Moscow and Kyiv.
In September, Russia released 24 captured Ukrainian crew members as part of a wider Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap negotiated between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy - who was elected on a platform of ending a war in east Ukraine that has killed some 13,000 Ukrainians over the past five years.
Another test comes next month, when France hosts Russia, Ukraine and Germany for a summit aimed at injecting new life into a peace effort that has thus far failed to stop the steady drip of violence in the region.
On Monday, a Kremlin spokesman confirmed Putin would take part in the talks - lending them additional significance as Moscow's commitment to the summit had up until now been far from assured.
Yet, negotiations aimed at ending the war have been further complicated by Russia's insistence it is not a participant in the conflict and its influence over the separatists is limited - that despite a well-documented "hybrid campaign" of sending Russian soldiers, mercenaries and so-called "volunteers" to fight on the side of the rebels.