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Covington Represents Ukraine in Securing Order for Release of Servicemen and Naval Vessels

May 25, 2019

WASHINGTON—Advised by Covington, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs secured a significant victory against the Russian Federation in a dispute arising under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (“ITLOS”), a 21-judge international tribunal based in Hamburg, ordered Russia to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 Ukrainian servicemen detained in the Black Sea in 2018.

“Today’s order sends a strong message that Russia is not above the law and will be held accountable for its international law violations,” said Marney Cheek, co-chair of Covington’s International Arbitration Practice and counsel for Ukraine. “Russia must now comply with its obligation immediately to release Ukraine's vessels and servicemen.” 

On November 25, 2018, three Ukrainian naval vessels attempted to navigate through the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. After the ships were blocked by Russia, they began to sail back to their port of origin but were pursued and seized by ships of the Russian Coast Guard. Since its unlawful seizure and detention of the Ukrainian naval vessels, Russia has detained the vessels and prosecuted the 24 Ukrainian servicemen on board for alleged violations of its domestic laws on illegal border crossings. Russia’s actions violate the immunity of warships and their personnel under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.

In the ITLOS provisional measures order, the tribunal recognized that, “the actions taken by the Russian Federation could irreparably prejudice the rights claimed by Ukraine to the immunity of its naval vessels and their servicemen,” and that “the continued deprivation of liberty and freedom of Ukraine’s servicemen raises humanitarian concerns.” The case will now continue before an arbitral tribunal to be constituted under Annex VII to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The provisional measures handed down today are a victory for the rule of law, for Ukraine, and for the families of the servicemen,” said Jonathan Gimblett, a partner in Covington’s Washington office and counsel for Ukraine. “Covington will continue to advocate for accountability during proceedings on the merits.”

In addition to Ms. Cheek and Mr. Gimblett, partner David Zionts; associates Nikhil V. Gore, Julia Brower, Tarek Austin, Alexandra Francis, Lisa Ann Johnson; and special legal consultant Volodymyr Shkilevych represented Ukraine. Ukraine’s delegation was led by H.E. Olena Zerkal, Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine.  Professor Alfred H.A. Soons of Utrecht University School of Law and Professor Jean-Marc Thouvenin of Paris-Nanterere University and Sygna Partners also represented Ukraine, as did Oksana Zolotaryova, Taras Kachka, and other attorneys and advisors from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Naval Forces of Ukraine. 

Covington also represents the Government of Ukraine in additional public international law cases against the Russian Federation before the International Court of Justice and a separate dispute before an arbitral tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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