The Ukrainian Parliament has imposed a 30-day period of martial law, a measure it refrained from taking even during the height of conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east and the Russian annexation of Crimea. The motion, made by President Petro Poroshenko, was in response to the Russian navy intercepting and firing on three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea. The conflict raises fears of increased violence in the eastern Donbass region, which after years of conflict is essentially controlled by pockets of separatists and pro-Russia insurgents.
Sunday’s incident took place in the Kerch Strait, a narrow passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, between Crimea and the Russian mainland. The Sea of Azov is itself shared by Russia and Ukraine, and the three Ukrainian ships were reportedly sailing from one Ukrainian port in the Black Sea, around Crimea, to another Ukrainian port at the top of the Sea of Azov. Russia blocked off the ships’ passage underneath a bridge with a long oil tanker, and, according to Ukrainian intelligence, opened fire on the three ships with fighter jets. After ramming the small tugboat among the three, the Russian navy intercepted the ships and arrested the 24 sailors on board, some of whom were hospitalized for injuries sustained during the attack.
Russia has denied accusations that the attack was a deliberate provocation, arguing that the ships did not get the necessary permission to cross through the strait and that they made “provocative actions” in a deliberate attempt to cause alarm. Ukraine says that, according to international maritime rules, it needs no such permission. Ukraine likewise confirmed Russian claims that there were members of its SBU intelligence agency on board the three ships, but says that the officers were conducting routine counterintelligence operations against Russian spying.
The Ukrainian president, in successfully declaring martial law in ten of the country’s regions still under his control, is likewise fending off accusations by Russia of manufacturing a crisis for political gain. Poroshenko, who took power after the ouster of the former, pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych, is increasingly unpopular and in the midst of a difficult campaign for reelection in March.
Martial law, said Poroshenko, will only affect those regions that he has determined to be the potential “frontlines” of a Russian attack. The known, practical effects of martial law will be a partial mobilization and increased air defense, as well as less tangible improvements in “anti-terrorism measures” and “information security.” The framework of martial law in Ukraine, however, provides for the widespread reorganization of society towards defense. Able-bodied citizens can be directed to work in defense facilities, group political activity can be suspended, private property can be confiscated, soldiers or internally displaced people (of which there are hundreds of thousands in Ukraine after years of fighting) can be forcibly quartered in civilian homes, and foreign nationals from hostile countries can be detained. So far, none of these more radical measures have been activated, and the president has promised to respect the rights of Ukrainian citizens.
On Monday, by Russian request, the U.N. held an emergency meeting of the Security Council. “We stand united in opposing Russia’s attempt to discuss yesterday’s serious escalation in the Kerch Strait under an agenda item entitled ‘violation of the borders of the Russian Federation,’” said U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley, in a statement issued on behalf of the U.S. Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the U.K. Haley went on to describe Russian actions as a “dangerous escalation and violation of international law.”
The European Union released a similar statement condemning Russian actions and insisting that it release the Ukrainian sailors. “[T]he events in the Sea of Azov are a demonstration of how instability and tensions are bound to rise when the basic rules of international cooperation are disregarded,” it said. The statement also blamed Russia for the “militarization” of the Azov Sea, including the construction of the Kerch Bridge (where the oil tanker was used to block the three ships) between the Russian mainland and Crimea, which it called a “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” As here implied, the statement went on to insist that the EU would not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, illegal under international law.
“We do not like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out” said U.S. President Trump to a group of reporters in his first comment since the incident. “I know Europe is not — they are not thrilled. They are working on it too. We’re all working on it together.”
In a video released by the Russian intelligence agency FSB, three of the captured sailors are admit to having trespassed across the Russian border. The Ukrainian government says that they were speaking under threat of torture. In the video, one of the sailors is obviously reading from a teleprompter.
“It’s not a political issue here, because we can have an argument about the legal status, but it’s about simply concentrating on protecting them and helping them,” said Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. “Even to put prisoners of war on television is already a crime,” he added.
The incident in the Kerch Strait is only the most dramatic in series of events escalating tensions in the region. Eastern Ukraine has been in a seemingly endless cycle of broken ceasefires between the Ukrainian military and separatist forces, the latter being backed by Russian troops and weapons. 10,000 people have died since the fighting began in 2014, fighting that has simmered over the course of the last three years with separatists establishing a strong foothold in the eastern Donbass region. In late August, the head of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a separatist stronghold in Donbass, was assassinated in an explosion at a cafe. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the killing on the Ukrainian government, which in turn speculated that it was likely the result of separatist infighting if not a direct order from Moscow.
“The imposition of martial law in some regions may pose a risk of escalating tensions in the conflict-hit region, namely the south-east,” said Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov. Russia denies the extent of its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, despite overwhelming evidence that it has sent tens of thousands of troops to the regions and provided the rebels with weapons and funding. It is therefore possible to read implicit threats in such examples of forced naivete among Russian officials.
The primary concern at this stage is that such incidents will precede large-scale violence, instigated by Russia, of or exceeding that which began in 2014. Barring a willingness on the part of the Ukrainian government to sit passively as Russia annexes even more of its territory in the east, a return to outright war in Ukraine is much more likely than whatever permanent end European and American officials can conjure with talk of de-escalation.