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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Ukraine declares martial law following Russian boat incident

Russian forces intercepted and confiscated three Ukrainian naval boats on Sunday

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko speaks with other parliamentarians ahead of a vote on imposing martial law. Reuters
Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko speaks with other parliamentarians ahead of a vote on imposing martial law. Reuters

Ukraine put its armed forces on alert on Monday as the country’s president Petro Poroshenko said that martial law will be introduced throughout the country from Wednesday for 30 days after Russia opened fire and seized three ships in the Kerch Strait, provoking condemnation of Moscow at the UN and warnings of military escalation.

The incident on Sunday evening left six Ukrainian sailors wounded, at least one critically, and prompted an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley opened the session by urging members to oppose Russian aggression, which she called an “outrageous violation”.

Tensions have been growing between the two nations in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s 2014 backing for an insurgency in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

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Read more:

Russia fires on Ukraine's navy near Crimea as tensions flare

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The Kerch Strait has been classed as waters open to both Russia and Ukraine. It connects the Sea of Azov, bordered by Ukraine, Russian-annexed Crimea and Russia, and the Black Sea. There has been growing hostility between the two sides over access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In recent months, Russia has begun inspecting all vessels sailing to or from Ukrainian ports.

But Sunday’s act was the first time the two militaries have come into open conflict in recent years.

A video shared online by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, appeared to show a Russian ship crashing into a Ukrainian tug boat. The incident, and Russia’s subsequent refusal to return the boats to Ukrainian control, led to condemnation from the international community.

Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN, Volodymyr Yelchenko, said intercepted Russian radio transmissions showed that the latter’s military vessels were operating on orders of “shoot to kill”, and he urged international sanctions against Moscow to be tightened. “Russia doesn’t understand any other measures,” Mr Yelchenko said in New York.

“The situation is getting worse. I have a lot of evidence,” he said.

A video shared online by Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov appeared to show a Russian ship crashing into a Ukrainian tug boat.

Ms Haley told the Security Council: “What we witnessed is another reckless Russian escalation. It is an arrogant act. The United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Russia’s security service, the FSB, said the three Ukrainian craft entered Russian territorial waters illegally and carried out dangerous manoeuvres, said Russia’s state-owned news agency Tass.

Mr Poroshenko suggested a 30-day declaration of martial law and asked parliament to ratify his request – which it did.

Exactly what the martial law legislation will entail is not yet known. However, Ukrainian law leaves room for mobilising its reserve forces, flying aircraft over sensitive sites, restricting the media, enforcing curfews and suspending citizens’ rights in the name of national security.

The declaration of martial law comes at a critical time for the former Soviet nation. A presidential election is planned for March and parliamentary polls for later in the year. Russian pressure could derail this timetable, potentially weakening western support for the embattled nation. But in a television address yesterday, Mr Poroshenko said the presidential election remained on track for March 31.

John Lough, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, said: "The Kremlin’s policy here is to certainly put pressure on the Ukrainian state in the hope that they might not be able to cope, and that because they can’t cope, western backers, as Russia sees them, will start to lose heart."

A 2003 treaty granted Ukraine unimpeded rights to use the Kerch strait under an agreement of sharing the waters, but in recent years Ukraine has complained of unlawful and hindering checks of its vessels using the strait, a move it says has cost Ukraine 30 per cent of its port trade.

A spokesman from the European Union’s diplomatic service said on Sunday the rules of international co-operation had been disregarded.

Europe also expected Russia to stop inspecting vessels passing through the strait.

As well as the EU condemning Russia’s actions, neighbouring countries expressed dismay and disapproval.

Latvia’s foreign office called Russia’s actions aggressive and Lithuania’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Darius Skusevicius, condemned them in the “strongest terms”.

However, as much as the general feeling is one of rapid escalation, Mr Lough urged caution.

He said the incident may well be Russia testing the ­waters for how the international community would react to a future land grab.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “deep concern” of the US, saying the incident “represent[ed] a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law.”

He condemned this “aggressive Russian action” and called on Russia return Ukraine its ships.

“We call on both parties to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments. We urge Presidents Poroshenko and Putin to engage directly to resolve this situation. In that regard, we reiterate our support for the Normandy Four format.”