On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron demanded Moscow to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured last month near the Kerch Strait, which adjoins Crimea and gives Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea an exit to the Black Sea.
Moscow has accused the 24 sailors of illegally crossing the Russian border. Ukraine said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.
"We demand safe, free and unimpeded transit for all ships through the Kerch Strait and the immediate and unconditional release of all illegally detained Ukrainian seafarers," Merkel and Macron said in a joint statement.
Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a blunt retort, calling the statement regrettable and rejecting accusations of "violations of human rights in the Crimea and escalation of tension in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait."
“We are forced to address our partners again so they give up the double standards and pay attention to the authentic problems and threats that their pupils in Kiev are creating for European security and stability,” the official statement argued.
Russia also stressed they guarantee free transit in the Kerch Strait but said they can’t ignore threats to their national security.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said Friday that Ukraine would continue to use the Kerch Strait for navigation, insisting Crimea is part of Ukraine.
In its official statement, Moscow warned Macron and Merkel that attempts to cast doubt over the legal status of Crimea are pointless, reminding them that the people of Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Merkel in a phone call that the sailors were under investigation and were being dealt with in accordance with Russian law, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told news agency RIA.
The Speaker of Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin responded to the French and German leaders saying they should get things straightened out in their own countries before criticizing the human rights situation in Crimea.
Volodin also criticized Berlin and Paris for their timing. "They should have expressed their concern over the human rights situation in Crimea before the 2014 referendum when the Ukrainian authorities banned the teaching of children in their native language … Today, such a right is guaranteed in Crimea. Three languages -Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar- enjoy the status of a state language. Nothing of the kind was done over the 23 years of Crimea’s being part of Ukraine," he said.