Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced the end of his country’s one month period of martial law, imposed on November 25th in response to Russia’s capture of three Ukrainian ships and their crews in the Sea of Azov. The decision, the president said, was in order to ensure the progress of democratic presidential elections scheduled for March 31st, 2019 and was not to be taken as a sign of decreased hostility between the two countries.
“Why do I decide not to continue martial law? Because we have two threats,” the president said on Wednesday during a military cabinet meeting in Kiev. “On the one hand, the threat of direct military aggression; on the other, the threat of attacks on democratic rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Upon issuing the original edict in November, overwhelmingly supported in the Ukrainian Parliament, the president sought to curtail fears that he was stripping away freedoms on the eve of a contested election. His opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has been leading in the polls and released a statement at the time acknowledging the necessity of martial law but criticizing the specific nature of that which was being imposed by Poroshenko. Her Batkivshchyna party, she said, had since the outbreak of violence in 2014 been calling for martial law but was not ready “to support the destruction of the rights and freedoms of Ukrainians under the guise of martial law.” She called on the president to institute a form that preserved the military buildup on the country’s borders but better-protected the rights of citizens in the run-up to a highly contested election.
The 30-day period of martial law saw a military buildup in ten of the Ukrainian provinces still under direct control of the Poroshenko government. Russian men of military age were barred from entering the country for the duration of the period, and are reportedly still not allowed to enter the country. The borders with Russia and rebel-held territories in the Ukrainian east and southeast were identified by the government as potential “frontlines” for military confrontation. The head of the Ukrainian military said earlier in December that Russia had been similarly reinforcing its military presence in these border areas and posed as great a threat to the country as it had since it annexed Crimea in 2014, the year that widespread violence began between the Ukrainian military and various pro-Russia and separatist rebels.
In making his announcement, Poroshenko touted the international support his administration had received in the wake of the incident in the Sea of Azov. “The support and concrete actions of our international partners — their pressure on the Kremlin combined with martial law — have stopped the worst scenario that the Russian Federation planned.” According to Deputy Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories Yuriy Hrymchak, that support included much needed military communications systems provided by NATO partners to the Ukrainian government and delivered on Poroshenko’s presidential plane upon his return from Brussels. What other progress had been made during martial law, Hrymchak said, could not be shared with the general public.
In the wake of Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships, both countries tried to pin the other as the provocator in the incident. Russia claimed that the Ukrainian ships were deliberately flouting maritime regulations, while Ukraine insisted that Russia did not have the right to exert any kind of control over the shared waters. The Kerch Strait, the pass where the ships were intercepted, was being blocked at the time by a Russian vessel placed there to prevent passage by the Ukrainian ships.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called immediately after the incident by Russia to address the crisis, the U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s actions on behalf of America, Poland, Sweden, the U.K., and the Netherlands. The E.U. released a similar statement at the time, condemning Russia’s actions.
On a visit to Ukraine towards the end of the martial law period, British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson insisted that Russia had no claims to the Sea of Azov or the adjacent Black Sea, and said that his country had sent one of their own ships as a token of solidarity with Ukraine. He also said that the British military intended to send more warships to the region in order to establish a more regular presence.
“What we are saying to Russia, what we are saying to President Putin — they cannot continue to act with no care for international laws or international norms,” said the defense minister. Moscow, in response, characterized the British ship as a spy ship.
The 24 captured sailors, whose plight began this latest saga in the years of violence between the two countries, have yet to be released. As of the end of the martial law period, they were reportedly awaiting trial by Russian authorities in Moscow.