World News

In Standoff With Russia, What Does Ukraine’s Martial Law Decree Mean?

Posted November 27, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST

MOSCOW — Ukrainians were thrown into confusion on Tuesday over their country’s martial law emergency, a day after the president pressed Parliament to enact the measure with no complete public version of what it contained, including the effective date.

The president, Petro O. Poroshenko, said in his speech to Parliament on Monday that martial law would begin Wednesday, but his official website said it had taken effect Monday. In addition, the government’s newspaper of record published an older, more stringent version of the law saying that it would last 60 days instead of 30 as approved by lawmakers.

Poroshenko sought to reassure the public through a television interview and Facebook posts that the law, a response to what he called new Russian military threats this past weekend, would only be enforced in the event of an invasion and that it would not restrict civil liberties.

But lawyers, diplomats and other experts said that the rollout shrouded the whole thing in fog.

“Nothing is known about the restrictions themselves,” said Eugene Krapyvin, a lawyer who works on government reform.

Here are some of the main questions surrounding what led to the martial-law decree, the latest chapter in a sudden escalation of a nearly 5-year-old conflict between Russia and Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people.

What happened over the weekend?

Russian forces impounded three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait, an important shared waterway, ramming one and detaining 24 sailors, including three wounded in shooting by the Russian side.

Both Moscow and Kiev accused the other of flouting the rules of passage through the strait.

Which side is right?

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is replete with competing, murky versions of events. The ship confrontation is no exception.

The two sides agree that three Ukrainian military vessels were trying to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait on Sunday.

Ukraine accuses Russia of violating a 2003 treaty between the two countries treating the Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, and the international law of the sea about free, “innocent” passage through any strait.

Russia maintains that under new rules put in place in 2015, any vessel transiting the strait must seek permission 48 hours in advance. Russia claims that two Ukrainian warships that passed through the strait on Sept. 23 had followed those rules.

This time, according to the Russian account promulgated by the Federal Security Service, three Ukrainian ships on the Black Sea side of the strait sent word only at the last minute that they planned to transit. Is Russia’s new bridge over the strait relevant to this clash?

Yes. The 12-mile bridge, which costs $7.5 billion, connects the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula, the territory Russia seized by force from Ukraine in 2014.

Worried about threats from Ukrainian extremists to sabotage the bridge, Russia accused the Ukrainian ships of executing dangerous maneuvers and closed the shipping lane for what it called security reasons.

Russia claims that it ordered the ships to leave, leading to the confrontation.

What do the Ukrainians say?

Ukraine denies that its two warships sought Russian permission to transit the strait in September, saying that it already had that right under the 2003 treaty. Since Ukraine does not recognize the 2014 annexation of Crimea, it maintains that the border between the two countries still dissects the Kerch Strait.

Russia broadcast what it called confessions from a few Ukrainian sailors who said the episode had been a deliberate provocation by their side. Ukraine condemned the statements as coerced and an abuse of war prisoners.

One Russian columnist speculated that despite the accusations from both sides, it was possible that the confrontation had spun out of control because of the local Russian commander’s actions.

“Russia had plenty ways to stop the Ukranians without bringing the situation to a deadlock,” wrote the columnist, Yulia Latynina, in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “It would be fine if it were a part of some major plan. But chances are high that all of this was done by some local general who just wanted to qualify for a promotion.” Why did this clash happen now?

Tensions have been building since at least March, when Ukrainian border guards impounded a Russian fishing boat and kept its crew until October.

Matters worsened in May, after the Kerch Bridge opened, when Russian border guards started inspecting foreign vessels navigating the Sea of Azov. Since then, 295 Ukrainian and other foreign ships have been stopped. About 7 percent of Ukrainian exports, mainly steel and grain, flow out of Mariupol and other ports on the Sea of Azov, so the inspections have hurt trade.

More important, the Ukrainians felt that Russia, through the inspections and through the deployment of dozens of new patrol ships in the sea, was gradually constricting Ukrainian access and converting the waterway into a “Russian lake.”

So last September, Ukraine announced that it would create a naval base at the southeast port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, dragging two small vessels overland and sending in two creaking warships. (The Ukrainian fleet has basically been nonexistent since 70 percent of it was lost in 2014 when Russia seized Sevastopol, the Black Sea port on the Crimean Peninsula.)

Having ceded the Crimean Peninsula without a fight, Ukraine seemed determined not to let the same happen to the Sea of Azov.

So why martial law and what does it mean?

Poroshenko justified the action because of what he called indications that Russia could seize other parts of Ukraine’s territory, and citizens should be ready to resist.

The official newspaper of record, Uryadovyi Kuryer, published an older version of the law that Poroshenko was forced to dilute to assure passage late Monday.

Poroshenko’s office did not respond to a request for clarification about the law, which was limited to the 10 provinces bordering areas where Russian troops are deployed as well as along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Roman Marchenko, a lawyer in private practice in Ukraine, said the broad outlines included the ability of the military commanding officer in each of the 10 regions to requisition private property and vehicles, to mobilize citizens as soldiers, to evacuate population centers and to impose curfews.

“The question is whether army officials will use these powers in reality,” Marchenko said, noting that nobody knows how it will work because martial law has never been enforced since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. “They can do whatever they want and they do not need to justify anything about their actions to the public or the courts or anybody.”

What does Russia say about Ukraine’s martial law?

President Vladimir Putin of Russia and other top Russian officials have suggested that Ukraine might exploit martial law to rev up the conflict. The Kremlin has accused Poroshenko of manufacturing the crisis to strengthen his weak prospects in a March presidential election.

In a telephone call Tuesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Putin expressed “serious concern” that Ukraine had placed its entire military on heightened alert, according to the presidential press service. It said Putin asked Germany to pressure Ukraine against “taking further ill-considered steps.”

What are other countries saying?

Given that most of the world has yet to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO and numerous Western governments supported Ukraine in the confrontation. President Donald Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday that he might cancel his scheduled meeting with Putin at the Group of 20 summit meeting this weekend because of the maritime clash.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Poroshenko to reiterate “strong U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, extending to its territorial waters,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a Twitter post.

Politicians in Germany, Austria, Poland and Estonia on Tuesday raised the possibility of new European Union sanctions against Russia. What happens next?

Putin is due at the summit of G-20 leaders in Argentina, which is scheduled to begin on Friday. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the issue was not on the formal agenda, but it was sure to emerge in discussions among the leaders on the sidelines.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea proved wildly popular at home, and with his approval rating now sinking, he might benefit from a new confrontation with Ukraine. But he also has sought to end the Western sanctions imposed after the annexation, so may not want to risk more by continuing the fight. Poroshenko might also burnish his presidential campaign by looking like a tough leader challenging Russia.