Ukraine imposed martial law Monday in parts of the country “subject to Russian aggression,” ratcheting up tensions after a high-stakes clash between Russian and Ukrainian ships on the Black Sea near Crimea.
The measure passed by an overwhelming margin in parliament after President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukrainian intelligence services had uncovered evidence of a looming Russian ground offensive — a prospect that could plunge the two neighbors into open war.
“Russia has been waging a hybrid war against our country for five years,” Poroshenko said in an address to the nation. “But with an attack on Ukrainian military boats, it moved to a new stage of aggression.… This is a bold and frank participation of regular units of the Russian federation.… This is a qualitatively different situation, and qualitatively different threat.”
Poroshenko claimed to be holding intelligence documents showing the threat of a Russian land offensive against Ukraine but did not release any such materials or elaborate.
The incident seemed to play into a propaganda war being waged between the two countries, which had been the two biggest republics in the former Soviet Union.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, pointed the finger at the Ukrainian president and hinted, without evidence, that the clash in the Kerch Strait was a “provocation” aimed at raising the public image of Poroshenko at home.
“Literally the whole basis of the politics of Poroshenko and his regime is a provocation,” Zakharova posted on her Facebook page.
Poroshenko earlier on Monday had announced a proposal for a 60-day period of martial law, but Ukrainian lawmakers appeared to scoff at the prospect amid concerns that the measure could be used to postpone Ukraine’s presidential election, scheduled for March 31. Poroshenko, whose approval ratings have plummeted recently, is at risk of losing reelection.
According to Ukrainian law, martial law prohibits elections and limits many civil liberties. Later Monday, Poroshenko offered the parliament a second proposal — the one that passed — calling for a 30-day period of martial law that would allow the presidential campaign to begin unaffected.
“Martial law does not mean the declaration of war,” Poroshenko said. “It is introduced solely for the purpose of strengthening Ukraine's defense against the background of growing aggressiveness from Russia.”
Martial law will take effect Wednesday, but what it will look like is still unclear. The measure that passed imposes martial law in areas bordering Russia and Transnistria, a Russian-controlled area of Moldova. Poroshenko’s decree is broad in scope, but he said it would not be used to infringe on any of Ukraine’s democratic institutions, such as a free press or upcoming elections. At the least, martial law would allow the Ukrainian government to allocate more funds to the military.
The emergency measures follow an incident Sunday on the Black Sea in which Russian coast guard vessels fired on and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels and their 23 crew members. The boats and their crews are being held in Kerch, a city in Russian-controlled Crimea. Poroshenko has called for their immediate release.
The incident marked the most serious crisis between Russia and Ukraine in several years and has drawn a slow but steady procession of condemnations from European leaders who have called for de-escalation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has called for the release of the Ukrainian boats and sailors.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a stern message Monday to the U.N. Security Council, calling Russia’s behavior an “outrageous violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty and calling on the Kremlin to back down.
Asked about Russia’s actions, President Trump told reporters he was “not happy about it.” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo also condemned the Russian move.
Britain, France, Germany and five other European nations issued a statement at the U.N. reaffirming their recognition of Ukraine’s borders and calling for de-escalation. Like most of the international community, they refuse to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
A clash between the Russian coast guard and Ukrainian navy on the Black Sea has, in many ways, been a long time coming.
When Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia, many feared that Moscow would make a push to seize swaths of the country’s eastern territories lining the Sea of Azov, providing a land bridge with easy access to the Kremlin’s new territory. But that never happened, and the war in eastern Ukraine eventually settled down into an uneasy stalemate.
Meanwhile, tensions have continued to flare in and around the Kerch Strait. In 2015, Moscow began construction of a $3.7-billion bridge spanning 12 miles of the strait to connect Crimea to mainland Russia. As construction progressed, Moscow began asserting itself as the local traffic authority and in the last year has stopped dozens of Ukrainian fishing boats.
The Kerch Strait is a vital economic artery for Ukrainian cities along the Sea of Azov coast. There is no other way into the sea, and the strait sees a lot of commercial shipping. Ukraine also has naval bases along the coast, including one at Mariupol — a major industrial center a stone’s throw from the Russia-controlled breakaway region of Donetsk.
Officially, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are internal waters shared by Russia and Ukraine, according to a 2003 bilateral treaty. Neither body of water is governed by international maritime law.
The 2003 treaty was not rescinded after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a territorial claim that is not recognized by Ukraine or the United Nations. But Moscow appeared to be altering the deal on Sunday, when the Russian coast guard attempted to stop three Ukrainian navy boats that were en route from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov.
The situation began to escalate when a Russian ship rammed one of the Ukrainian vessels, a tugboat, damaging its engine. Hours later, closer to the entrance to the Kerch Strait, the Russian coast guard opened fire on the three Ukrainian navy boats, damaging two of them and injuring six Ukrainian sailors. The boats were then boarded and seized. Pictures published by Russian media Monday show the boats tied up to a dock in Kerch.
Russia took other measures to ensure the boats wouldn’t enter the strait. Hours before firing on the Ukrainians, the Russian coast guard moved a tanker into position below the bridge crossing the strait, blocking all traffic on both sides. Russia reopened the strait to traffic on Monday. So far there has been no official statement from Moscow on the 2003 treaty governing the strait.
Rather, Moscow has focused on painting the incident as a Ukrainian provocation. The Kremlin on Monday said that it believed the incident was orchestrated by Kiev to force Russia’s hand. Dmitry Kiselyov, a popular talk show host seen to exemplify the Kremlin line, said on his Sunday night news program that Poroshenko was trying to pick a fight with Russia.
“Without his order, nothing like this would have happened,” Kiselyov said. “Poroshenko has already established himself as a proponent of war. By going to war with Russia on the Black Sea, he apparently hopes to improve his ratings.”
Poroshenko has been running a reelection campaign under the slogan of “Army. Language. Faith.”
Moscow is paying close attention to Ukraine’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, and Sunday’s incident may have been part of the Kremlin playbook to destabilize Ukraine ahead of the vote, said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“It’s good old-fashioned election interference by Russia,” Jankowicz said.
No matter what happens, Russia has nothing to lose in this scenario, she said. “Moscow gains economically, militarily and politically unless there is a strong international response,” Jankowicz said. “Meanwhile, Ukraine is destabilized ahead of elections.”
Russia’s timing of the incident also benefits the Kremlin: European leaders are distracted by the “Brexit” talks, and in the U.S., Trump has focused on the migrant caravan on the Mexican border and the transition in Congress.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to cross paths at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina this week.
Special correspondents Bodner and Ayres reported from Moscow and Washington, respectively.