Following a Russian attack on three Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait, the Ukrainian Parliament has greenlighted a decision to impose martial law in nearly half of the country. On 26 November, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine voted to impose martial law in 10 Oblasts of Ukraine for 30 days with a possibility of prolongation. The decision will come into force starting 9 AM on November 28, lasting until 27 December. 276 MPs out of 330 who took part in voting supported the bill.
The decision affects the Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Vinnytsia oblasts. They are located along the Russian border, Transnistria, and along the coast of the Black and Azov seas and are thought to be at greater risk of a Russian intervention.
According to the procedure, the decree on introducing martial law was introduced by the President on the suggestion of the National Security and Defense Council. Now that it has been approved by Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers will develop the concrete plan to implement the new regime.
In a fiery speech in the Rada, where President Petro Poroshenko persuaded the MPs to support the law, he stated that rights of citizens will be restricted only in the case of a Russian intervention. As well, presidential elections will take place as planned, on 31 March 2019.
Debates over martial law on November 26
Following the Russian attack on three Ukrainian ships near Kerch, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko convenend an emergency session of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) at midnight on November 26, where a decision was made to submit a motion for enacting martial law in Ukraine to Parliament. An emergency session of Parliament was convened at 16:00, during which MPs clashed over the scope of the proposed martial law.
The most debated questions were whether the presidential elections scheduled for March 2019 would be postponed and the extent of territories affected by martial law.
Three ex-presidents of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko released an appeal regarding the situation to the Parliament. In it, they did not support martial law idea, as it would “restrict the rights and freedoms of the citizens” and poses a risk of chaos.
“Is this risk justified? Will it help to really restrain the aggressor? During the five years [of ongoing Russian aggression – Ed] there were situations when introducing martial law was expedient and possible – the seizure of Crimea, the traps in Debaltseve and Ilovaisk, where thousands were killed,” Kravchuk read the statement.
Fearing elections being canceled, MPs blocked the rostrum of the Parliament. Initially, the NSDC proposed to impose martial law for 60 days. This would have postponed the elections, which were scheduled for 31 March 2019, as martial law rules out elections. However, after a compromise reached with the political parties, the term was decreased to 30 days, which would allow holding elections as planned, and limited its area to ten oblasts.
What will the martial law change?
The general provisions of martial law in Ukraine are outlined in the law “On the legal regime of martial law.” The Presidential decree calls upon state ministries to implement it.
The management of the country will pass to the military command. Together with the bodies of the executive power, military administrations and bodies of local self-governance should introduce and implement the measures of the legal regime.
The military administrations are temporary state bodies which can be created on the territories where martial law is introduced. The president decides to create the military administrations on the request of state administrations or military commanders.
As well, the presidential decree calls to increase defense expenditures, to bring civilian defense systems to full readiness, and create defense councils to help the military administration enforce martial law.
During martial law, a partial mobilization may be declared by the president as needed. During the NSDC meeting, Poroshenko said that there will be no full mobilization yet, but that reserves of the first line will be drawn upon.
However, during the NSDC meeting, President Poroshenko stressed that martial law will not infringe upon civil liberties of Ukrainians, and in Parliament repeated that they will be limited only in case of an intervention. Additionally, Information Ministry Chief Yuriy Stets said that limitations on freedom of speech will not be imposed, but called to be aware that enemy will attempt to sow panic and disinformation through social media.
Nevertheless, the law “On the legal regime of martial law” envisions 24 limitations. Among them are: reinforced surveillance of strategic state objects, using enterprises and private property for military needs, labor duty, curfews, travel limitations, document checks, bans on peaceful assemblies and political parties, regulation the work of the telecommunication companies and media and other actions.
Will martial law help fend off Russia?
Military expert Ivan Aparshyn commented that Ukraine made the right decision to impose martial law now, but there would be few results if the defense budget is not increased. In particular, according to the expert, the funding of the Ministry of Defence should be increased by UAH 5-10 bn ($179-358 mn) the program Korvet for the Ukrainian Navy should be renewed.
Martial law has been discussed since February 2014
Discussions on imposing martial law in Ukraine have been ongoing since 2014, from the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
In 2017, Serhiy Pashynskyi, acting head of the Presidential Administration in 2014, stated on the air of Ukrainian TV that during the time of his service, US and EU representatives restrained Ukraine from introducing martial law and urged the country not to engage in an armed conflict with Russia.
Ex-Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitskyi stated that Ukraine had all the reasons to introduce martial law already on 28 February 2014.
“The Prosecutor General Office (GPU) has information that according to the first article of the Law on defence, all the events taking place in Crimea can be qualified as an armed attack against Ukraine. And in such cases, according to the law the legal regime of the martial law there are reasons to introduce it,” Maknitskyi said in 2014 at a meeting of the NSDC.
Then, Yuliya Tymoshenko opposed any active measures, arguing that Ukraine should not repeat the mistakes of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and calling for Ukraine to become the “most peaceful nation on the planet, behaving as a dove of peace.”
Two years later, in 2016, Speaker of Parliament Andriy Parubiy gave other details as to why martial law was not introduced in 2014.
“We realized that holding presidential elections and electing a legitimate president was no less important than the war. We had to decide on two hot topics at the same time – military defense of Ukraine from the aggression and holding elections. Martial law was one of the key questions. We realized that it would not allow holding presidential elections. But if there is no martial law, the army asks: please give us an official base on which the army can be involved. We had to find a format which would not stop the political process and at the same time would engage the army to organize a defense. That is how the anti-terrorist operation appeared as a format,” Parubiy told in an interview to Interfax, referring to the period when Ukraine’s operations against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas were termed the “ATO,” having been replaced in January 2018 by the “Joint Forces Operation.”
The only person who supported the idea of introducing martial law in February 2014, during Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution, was Oleksandr Turchynov, then acting president of Ukraine.
But politicians returned to the questions throughout all nearly five years of war. In the summer of 2014, Petro Poroshenko explained he did not support the idea of introducing martial law because it would rule out imports of arms and double purpose products that the Ukrainian army needed, because the IMF does not give money to countries at war, and because martial law envisions legal protections for the enemy.
The IMR argument turned out to be false. On 27 November, Gosta Ljungman, IMF representative in Ukraine, stated that the IMF does not plan to revise Ukraine’s credit program due to the introduction of martial law. And in October 2014, Jerome Vacher, then representative of IMF in Ukraine, said that
“the IMF does not have formal legal prohibitions which obstruct the cooperation in such circumstances [of martial law]. We have already cooperated with a number of countries on which territories military conflicts of different activity were taken place.”
Although there were significant escalations of Ukraine’s de-facto war against Russia in the five years of its duration, this did not lead to introduction of martial law. Among them were the Ilovaisk tragedy, when hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed by Russian forces in the so-called green corridor in August 2014, the Debaltseve trap and the fight for the Donetsk airport in 2015.
The President signed the Law “On the legal regime of martial law” in the summer of 2015.
Will martial law affect elections?
Earlier in summer 2018, leading presidential candidate Yuliya Tymoshenko warned that imposing martial law would help Poroshenko preserve his power and called it one of his strategies.
Now, some voices in Ukraine are echoing her words. For instance, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov commented to RFE/RL that the martial law is merely an attempt of President Poroshenko to hold on to power and postpone elections and that the whole incident in the Azov Sea was staged to achieve this result.
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