Russia said yesterday it had handed over three navy ships it seized a year ago from Ukraine, in the latest move to ease tensions between the two countries ahead of a crucial summit.
After an exchange of prisoners in September and the withdrawal of some frontline forces over the last few weeks, the handover marked another step in trying to resolve the five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Efforts have been building since the election this year of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine’s new president, and on Friday France announced he would hold his first face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on December 9.
The talks, which will also include French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be the highest-level negotiations on the conflict since 2016.
Russia’s foreign ministry said yesterday that the ships -- two gunboats and a tugboat -- had been handed over to Ukraine.
It said they had “illegally crossed the Russian border” and been held as evidence but were no longer needed.
There was no immediate confirmation of the handover from Kiev.
The Ukrainian ships were seized in November last year in the most serious confrontation between the two countries since the start of the conflict in 2014.
Russian forces boarded and took control of the vessels as they headed through the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway giving access to the Sea of Azov that is used by Ukraine and Russia.
They captured 24 Ukrainian sailors, who were returned to Ukraine as part of the September prisoner swap.
Border officials had said on Sunday that the ships would be returned and local television showed footage of them being towed by the Russian coastguard through the Kerch Strait.
The election of Zelensky, a television comedian who shocked the country’s elite by winning the presidency in April, has raised hopes the conflict with pro-Moscow separatists can finally be resolved.
Zelensky has said ending the war -- which has left some 13,000 dead -- is his top priority.