"In accordance with agreements concluded with the Ukrainian side, three Ukrainian ships ... are being towed from the port of Kerch to an approved transfer point," border officials with the Russian secret service told the Interfax news agency.
Back in November 2018, Moscow seized two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat in as they headed through the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway giving access to the Sea of Azov that is used by Ukraine and Russia.
As part of a lengthy and carefully-negotiated rapprochement that is considered a “first step” to mend the relations between Kiev and Moscow, back in September, 35 prisoners were swapped, including 24 Ukrainian sailors taken prisoner at the time.
The return of the ships comes as both nations prepare for a summit to try and resolve the wider conflict. On Friday, the French presidency announced the summit will involve France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine in Paris on Dec. 9 to discuss ways to resolve the wider conflict in eastern Ukraine.
After the prisoner exchange, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky agreed that the swap is an important step to mending ties between the two countries.
Both leaders have considered the prospects of solving the crisis inside Ukraine and putting an end to the lengthy conflict between Kiev and the breakaway Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Relations between Russia and Ukraine soured after the Autonomous Republic of Crimea held a referendum on March 16, 2014, to consult its population about the entry of its territory into the Russian Federation.
This popular consultation, which the Crimean Parliament approved on Feb. 27, authorized the members of the Supreme Council of Crimea to separate Crimea from Ukraine. Sevastopol, which had a different political status, also held its referendum and decided to join Russia.
Later, both Crimea and Sevastopol declared their independence on March 11 and formed the Republic of Crimea, a decision which the Crimean Parliament took by majority too. Soon after the separatist eastern governments of Donetsk and Lugansk declared independence as well, initiating a five-year-old conflict with Kiev.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and other Western countries ignored the Crimean people’s will, arguing that the referendum results were illegal according to the 1998 Ukrainian Constitution, which allowed the Ukrainian parliament to veto any legislation passed by the Crimean parliament.