World

'This is soul-destroying': Families of captured Ukrainian sailors fear the world has forgotten them

To Russia, they’re criminals, but to their families, 24 young Ukrainian sailors are hostages and pawns in Russia’s latest confrontation with the West.

Incarceration in Russia haunts families of men held since November

Lyuba and Roman Chuliba, whose son Sergei Chuliba was among the Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia in November, worry that the world has abandoned them. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

To Russia's government, Ukrainian sailors Yuri Bezyazichny and Sergei Chuliba are criminals, flanked by thuggish-looking guards in balaclavas and kept in a cage with steel bars during their infrequent court appearances.

But to their families, they and 22 other Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia as they sailed through disputed waters in the Kerch Strait incident in November are more like hostages of President Vladimir Putin's government.

Anxious family members who travelled overnight recently on the train from Kyiv to Moscow to see them in court were lucky if they got even a few moments to talk.

One mother, Lyuba Chuliba, pushed past one of the machine gun-toting guards and threw her arms around the neck of her 28-year-old son Sergei for quick kiss and a hug before he was pulled away. He and the others were taken back to Lefortovo, one of Russia's most notorious high security prisons.

The sailors have been charged with illegally crossing Russia's border. A conviction could lead to a six-year prison sentence.

"For me, this is soul-destroying," Lyuba Chuliba told CBC. "I just wanted to grab him and pull him out of there."

"Really, it's disgraceful," said Sergei Chuliba's father, Roman, of his son's imprisonment. "How is this moral?"

Ukrainian sailors Sergei Chuliba, left, and Yuri Bezyazichny, far right, sit in the prisoners' cage of a Moscow courtroom. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The families of the sailors — whose ships were rammed, shot at and then seized by Russia's navy — have mostly remained silent out of fear of reprisals.

But as their captivity drags on with little indication their release will come soon, some relatives fear the world has abandoned Ukraine's captured sailors.

"Our kids are in need of help," said Lyuba. "The whole world must know that our boys are good."

Following the court appearance, two families invited a team from the CBC's Moscow bureau to visit them in Ukraine.

Bezyazichny's mother, Alina Bezyazichny, 52, lives in Odessa, on the Black Sea. It's the headquarters for Ukraine's small Black Sea naval fleet and it's where their vessels sailed from.    

"It's a very horrible feeling when you know your child is not guilty," Bezyazichny told CBC as she walked up six flights of stairs to her son's apartment.

"I agreed to this interview to let the world know about the injustice to our children." 

Alina Bezyazichny visits the Odessa home of her son, Yuri Bezyazichny, once a week to water his plants. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

 Bezyazichny said she comes here a couple of times a week to water his cactus plants. Her son's neatly hung clothes in an armoire and folded shirts in a dresser were an obvious point of pride.

"Any girl can envy this," she said.

But her demeanour quickly turned dark when talk shifted to the events that led to her son's incarceration.

Bezyazichny, 28, served on the Ukrainian gun ship, the Berdyansk, while Chuliba was on the Yany Kapu, a military tugboat. They were accompanied by a third vessel, the Nikpol.   

They were sailing past the Crimean peninsula when they were intercepted by Russian naval vessels. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, claiming it and the waters around it as Russian territory. But most of the world, including Canada, refuses to recognize the annexation.

A Russian warship collides with the Ukrainian tug Yany Kapu during the incident in the Kerch Strait on Nov. 25, 2018. (YouTube)

Widely circulated video shot by sailors on one of the Russian ships shows the confrontation beginning with a series of demands over the radio for the Ukrainian tug to stop.

When it didn't, a larger Russian ship rammed it.  Several hours later, as the Ukrainian ships were returning to Odessa, the Russian flotilla approached again and opened fire.

"The hardest moment for me was when I didn't know if [Yuri] was alive or not," said Alina Bezyazichny, who had experienced a similar feeling of dread only 18 months ago.

Her husband, also called Yuri, was a military officer serving with Ukraine's military near the conflict zone in the Donbass area. Since 2014, it's been the scene of open warfare between separatist fighters backed by Russia and the Ukrainian army.

Last year, she said, her husband's command post was hit by a grenade and he spent several months in a coma before he died.    

"Such grief has come to our family," she said.

"It's hard for me to understand why [Russia needs] our territory. Why do they need Donbass? Don't they have enough territory, from Europe to the Far East?" 

Lyuba and Roman Chuliba invited a CBC crew to their home in Kakhovka, Ukraine, for dinner. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

At the home of Sergei Chuliba's parents in the village of Kakhovka, 300 kilometres north of Odessa, there is similar anger directed at the Putin government.

"They were doing their duty, taking the ships to [the Ukrainian port of] Mariupol. What's the threat there?" said his father, Roman Chuliba.

"Russia is definitely to blame. Today, they need [Crimean] territory, tomorrow it will be my home."

"I think he's a hero," added his mother. "He stayed loyal to his motherland and even when I cry I pull myself together and say a thousand times that I raised a worthy son."

Watch Lyuba Chuliba doubt how Ukraine could be seen as a threat to Russia.

Lyuba Chuliba questions the threat Ukrainian sailors posed to Russia 0:25

With the opening of the new Kerch Strait bridge to Crimea in May 2018, Russia began exerting control over the narrow waterway under the bridge that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.

The November confrontation marked a significant escalation of tensions between the two countries.  

On Russia's state-run media, the Ukraine-bashing went into overdrive after the incident. Talk show commentators suggested the armed Ukrainian sailors who entered Russian waters were a clear and present danger to Russian sovereignty. 

Putin has addressed the sailor's captivity only infrequently, most recently at his 2018 year-end news conference in December.

He suggested Ukraine's government deliberately sacrificed its sailors to try to whip up anti-Russian hysteria in a Ukrainian election year to help the re-election chances of President Petro Poroshenko.

"With regard to the future of the Ukrainian servicemen, they were sent on this mission and some of them were expected to die in the process," said Putin.

"I can see that the [Ukrainian] leadership is very upset by the fact that no one died. Thank God, this did not happen. An investigation is underway. Once it is over, we will know what to do with them."

The Orthodox church in the centre of Kakhovka is the city's most prominent landmark. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Independent analysts say the families — and the sailors — should prepare themselves for the possibility that the sailors' incarceration may drag on for many more months.

"It rather seems that the Russian side is impervious to pressure — political, humanitarian or economic — and it's going to demonstrate that nothing is going to change its position," said John Lough, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasian program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs .

He said its impossible to predict when Russia will decide the men have spent enough time in jail, but it certainly won't come before Ukrainian's presidential election concludes later in April.

"I think [the sailors] are there in order to persuade other Ukrainian servicemen not to participate in other operations, and that is probably quite a disincentive."​

Ships from Ukraine's Black Sea fleet rest at port in Odessa. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Throughout the ordeal, one of the few positives, say the families, is that they have all formed a common bond and communicate almost daily through online chat groups.

"We've basically become friends, like our boys were all friends," said Lyuba Chuliba. "Each of our pain is the same. This unites us all."

And yet until her son is home, she says she will have no peace.

"When I saw him in his handcuffs — like he's some kind of murderer — what is this all for? Because he was doing his duty?"

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.