The Russian aggressive actions against the Ukrainian military, given the fact that this time Russia has admitted its involvement in the attack, was the key argument for imposing martial law. The Kerch Strait accident had happened against the backdrop of the highest reported concentration of Russian forces near the Ukrainian borders and in Russia-occupied regions since 2014.
Martial law has expired on 26 December and the head of the state decided not to extend it. Ukrainian officials insist that the threat of the full-scale invasion persists.
So what were the actions of Ukraine under the first-in-its-history martial law and did the threat of an invasion go anywhere?
The martial law was limited to 10 Ukrainian regions bordering Russia, or adjacent to the regions where Russian troops are posted. That included the northeastern and eastern provinces, as well as the country’s south accessing the Black and Azov seas and bordering on the Russia-occupied Crimea and Moldova’s Transnistria where Russian troops have been stationed too. No civil rights were limited or suspended, and the imposed version of the martial law was much closer to the state of emergency.
In his interview with BBC Ukraine, published on 19 December, NSDC Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov explained that before the Kerch incident, the war remained purely hybrid. Russia didn’t admit its involvement in the developments, Russian servicemen hid their identifying insignia, and overpainted any signs of marking on the equipment to conceal its appendage to the Russian army.
The Kerch attack on Ukrainian vessels was the first time since 2014 that Russian forces deliberately and openly attacked Ukrainians, not hiding their responsibility for the crime. Thus, according to the Ukrainian legislature and all international norms, it was an act of direct aggression. Under Ukrainian laws, direct aggression is a reason to impose martial law, Turchynov explained.
“The Military Cabinet, then NSDC recommended the President impose martial law, and he did it, then the Parliament, according to the Constitution, supported this decision,” said the NSDC head.
Talking about the Kerch Strait incident, the Russian government turned the situation upside down and blamed Ukraine of a “provocation” against Russia. Russia’s deputy Envoy to the UN Dmitry Polyansky voiced the Russian narrative regarding martial law in Ukraine a day before its imposition,
“As we are getting closer to [Ukrainian presidential] election scheduled for March, the bankrupt Maidan team needs a serious escalation, and ideally war,” said Polyansky, implying that incumbent President Poroshenko was going to impose martial law to cancel the elections and remain in power (Russia believes that Poroshenko won’t be re-elected and hopes for someone else in office).
Putin also blamed Ukraine for the Russian attack on Ukrainian ships, saying that
“It was organized by the president ahead of the elections,” Putin said, adding that Poroshenko “is in fifth place, ratings-wise [Ukrainian pollsters place Poroshenko from 2nd to 5th in public-opinion surveys – Zoria], and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law.”
The same claim about Poroshenko desiring to cancel elections was magnified by the Russian press, pro-Russian journalists, Ukrainian press, Western think tanks, and later by opposition parliamentarians during the debates in the Verkhovna Rada.
Despite Russian claims, the Verkhovna Rada imposed martial law for only 30 days, until 27 December. The National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) initially proposed a 60-day term, but the shorter term was supported by the Parliament. It didn’t change the scheduled date of the presidential election in Ukraine, 1 March, the electoral campaign for which kicks off on 1 January.
Turchynov said that the initial 60-day term was offered by the military that needs 2 months for minimal deployment of the troops and to prepare the mobilization; when MPs started accusing President Poroshenko that he just wants to postpone the election from March to April, the President halved the proposed term.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian military cited high concentration of the Russian troops deployed near Ukrainian borders as another argument for martial law.
How many troops and equipment are near Ukrainian borders?
In his interview with Reuters on 4 December, Viktor Muzhenko, the commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, called the threat of a Russian full-scale invasion the highest since 2014.
Back then in 2014, Russia transferred many military units from across the country close to the entire stretch of Russia-Ukraine borders amid the Russian invasion in Crimea and the further flare-up in the Donbas. The build-up resulted in massive transborder artillery attacks on Ukrainian forces, offensives of the Russian paramilitary from the Russian territory, and several direct interventions of the Russian regulars to support its paramilitary formations in the Donbas in summer-winter 2014.
Now the Ukrainian Army took advantage of martial law to build up its defense in border regions, deploying more land and air forces there, to be able to counteract in case if Russia would dare to attack,
“All those actions that are being taken in the Azov Sea region, are elements of building up our presence in this region for an adequate response to possible provocations by the Russian Federation,” Muzhenko said.
On 16 December, President Poroshenko told the press conference that Russia withdrew only less than 10% of its formation from the Ukrainian border.
A border military base
Here is an example of how the Russian military bases grow near the Ukrainian border. The 91st central base of the reserve of automotive equipment in Kamensk-Shakhtinskiy, the Russian city in Rostov Oblast less than 20km away from the Ukrainian border has been a storage site for some thousand military trucks, artillery systems, and tankers. This fall, 250 main battle tanks emerged on the premises of the base, identified as T-64 and also older T-62M. The satellite imagery shows how and when the new storage facility was prepared and filled with the tanks. This is the biggest recent growth in numbers among the border military bases.
What Ukraine did under martial law
With martial law imposed, the Ukrainian Army, National Guard, and the Security Service (SBU) were on high alert. The Army deployed its detachments to the threated regions, for example, the 95th air assault brigade moved from the northern oblast of Zhytomyr to the coasts of Azov and Black Seas to be able to repel a possible Russian amphibious assault landing.
Some 3,000 first-line military reservists participated in 15-20-day drills, as well as some territorial defense reservists in 10-day refresher training. Some 1,200 servicemen and operatives from the agencies run by the Ministry of Interior – the national police and guard, emergency and border services – took part in the special tactical training exercises.
Security was tightened at infrastructure facilities like train stations, air-, and seaports.
NSDC secretary Turchynov said that the martial law became kind of a stress test for checking the readiness of the whole country to mobilize all its resources to oppose the full-scale aggression. According to him, the entire vertical of the executive branch was checked, starting from the Cabinet down to local administrations. On the checklist were the readiness of the civilian and territorial defense structures, the rate of the deployment of the first line military reserve; the ability of the military to rapidly and covertly reposition large military formations to far distances.
“And we discovered many issues we couldn’t reveal before the martial law [was imposed],” Turchynov told BBC Ukraine, “I can say the country at large is ready to oppose the aggression, but multiple issues also surfaced which we should immediately address.”
Among the issues, Turchynov mentioned the weaknesses of the mobilization protocol inherited from the USSR times and many bomb shelters not meeting the required conditions.
Border Service Guard’s spokesperson Oleh Slobodian told 26 December that his agency denied entry to about 1650 Russian nationals during the month-long martial law period. The ban affected Russian male citizens aged 16-60 who couldn’t prove they were entering Ukraine with peaceful intentions.
The martial law didn’t affect the upcoming presidential election, though the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) canceled the 23 December elections in nine united territorial communities (UTCs) in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. The UTCs are new entities of the local administrative-territorial division instituted amid the decentralization reforms. For now, there is no national-wide election in UTS and CEC schedules the elections in several territorial communities as they come to being, and the formation process is far from its end throughout Ukraine for now.
No large-scale invasion occurred in the course of martial law, as well as no escalation took place in the smoldering war in the East-Ukrainian region of the Donbas.
At 26 December NSDC meeting President Petro Poroshenko said that he has halted martial law, mentioning that the decision was based “on the analysis of the current security situation in the state,” however, he stressed that the situation around Ukraine “didn’t change much.”
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