In the on-again, off-again undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine, this has to be the most petty incident yet. Russia recently returned three Ukraine Navy ships captured in 2018, with just one catch. The toilets were missing. Ukraine, at least, appears to be taking it in stride.
Ukraine and Russia are neighbours, but the relationship has always been hot-and-cold for centuries. Relations really deteriorated in the 2010s as Russia has sought to bring Ukraine within its sphere of influence, insisting (rather forcefully!) on a pro-Moscow government and, lacking that, seeking to intimidate Kiev into falling in line. The two countries have exchanged blows frequently since 2014, with Ukraine accusing Moscow of not only arming separatist groups, but also sending in Russian combat troops to fight on Ukrainian soil.
On November 28, 2018 Ukrainian ships were attempting to cross from Odessa in the Black Sea to Mariupol, in the nearby Sea of Azov. A 2003 agreement between the two countries declares the Kerch Strait, which separates the two bodies of water, and the Sea of Azov as shared territory between the two countries. Ships from both sides are entitled to navigate freely in either area.
Ukraine insists that, on the day of the incident, it informed that Russia it was sending three ships—the artillery gunboats Berdyansk and Nikopol, as well as the navy tugboat Yany Kapu, through the strait. Russian air and naval forces intercepted the gunboats at sea and captured them and their crews, and several Ukrainian sailors were captured, along with some wounded, according to Bellingcat’s thorough writeup, which utilised open source data.
The captured sailors were repatriated in September 2019 as part of a prisoner swap with Russia. The ships, on the other hand, remained in Russia. None of them were particularly large or powerful: Berdyansk and Nikopol were so-called Gyurza-M-class “artillery gunboats.” Each was just 75 feet long, displaced 54 tons, and was armed with a 30-millimetre cannon, short-range surface to air missiles, and a pair of anti-tank guided missiles. These are not the biggest, baddest ships around. They are for doing things like going after smugglers. As Navy Technology explains more comprehensively, the ships were designed to:
...conduct patrols in harbours, rivers, lakes, territorial waters and isolated areas. Other missions include protection of borders and river ports of Ukraine, assistance to aircraft or vessels in distress, and combating illegal migration, piracy and smuggling in the Danube river and the waters of the Black Sea-Azov basin.
Yany Kapu was a tugboat.
Importantly, all three ships were equipped with at least one toilet.
All three ships were released last week. Reuters quoted Ukrainian navy chief Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko telling Ukrainian television that the retrieval process was slow going:
“They (the ships) do not go on their own. The Russians ruined them - even took off lamps, power outlets and toilets. We will show the whole world the Russian barbarism towards them.”
The Ukrainian Navy was equally blunt, and described the ships as returned in “ruined” condition.
In response to the toilet theft, Ukrainians organised what they called “Humanitarian Aid for Russians,” dropping off donated commodes in front of the Russian embassy in Kiev.
Russia uses its military might to bully almost all of its neighbours, even relatively peaceful Sweden and Japan. It’s a political magic trick, with bombers and warships executing a sleight of hand. Pay attention to the latest provocation, and not how militarily weak Russia actually is.
So, let that be a lesson to the rest of the world. The Russian military will take your ships, and then it’ll take your lamps and toilets.
Whatever it plans on doing with used toilets is anyone’s guess.