The introduction of martial law in Ukraine over the Kerch Strait incident highlights existing regional stability risks
- For the first time since 1945, Ukraine has approved martial law for ten regions, effective 28 November to 27 December.
- This followed a confrontation between Ukrainian navy vessels and Russian coastguard near the Kerch Strait, which connects the inland Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. The decision to implement martial law was prompted by security concerns and alarming government warnings that a land invasion by Russia was imminent.
- The imposition of martial law, coupled with the worsening of already bad relations with Russia, are likely to hamper some commercial operations in Ukraine. For instance, on 30 November, Bulgaria Air, Bulgaria’s flag-carrier, suspended all of its flights between the eastern Ukrainian city of Odessa and the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, until 16 December. The airline said the decision to suspend flights to Ukraine’s third-largest city was over concerns about passenger safety, and the ‘declared military situation’ in the country. The incident has also led to disruption in commercial shipping and last week the Ukrainian government said that 35 vessels were prevented from accessing ports in the Sea of Azov by Russia.
- The timing of the decision coupled with the growing unpopularity of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, suggests that the introduction of martial law will likely materialise into short-term political gains for the incumbent leader as he seeks re-election next year.
- The decision to impose martial law over the Kerch Strait incident highlights the limited set of options Kiev can take against Russia. Even if Moscow is planning a land invasion of Ukraine (as Poroshenko claims) or a further military escalation, Kiev’s decision to impose martial law is unlikely to deter Russia from taking such hostile action.
- Martial law is likely to continue causing considerable business disruption. For instance, the measure could signify regular checkpoints on entry points into Ukrainian cities. This will have an adverse impact on logistics companies with operations in Ukraine, potentially causing severe delays to the transport of goods across the country.
- The timing of the decision is also worth highlighting. The first round of a highly contested presidential election is scheduled to take place on 31 March 2019. According an opinion poll published on 3 December, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is the clear frontrunner with 14 per cent of voters indicating they would support her. Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular actor, is forecast to obtain 8 per cent of the vote, as would the incumbent Poroshenko. Adopting martial law is likely to benefit Poroshenko, whose popularity has dropped significantly since gaining power in 2014. Introducing martial law coupled with alarming statements over an increase in the number of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, could help shift the election’s narrative to national security issues – a key element of Poroshenko’s campaign – rather than economic policy, seen by challengers as one of his weaknesses. It will likely reinforce Poroshenko’s image as a pro-E.U., pro-Nato figure who takes a strong stance against Russia.
- The decision to implement martial law is also consistent with Ukraine’s strategic aim of receiving more support from Western powers against Russia. As such, martial law elevates the profile of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the international agenda, potentially eliciting a more robust response from both the U.S. and the E.U., likely in the form of additional sanctions on Russia.
- However, the decision also carries significant risks for Poroshenko, as opposition parties are likely to argue that by giving authorities a stronger mandate to ban protests and implement curfews, martial law could be used to crack down on political dissent.
- The Kerch Strait incident also highlighted Russia’s naval dominance in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. In return for committing to a de-escalation in the region and the eventual release of the detained crew, Moscow could use the incident as leverage to request an easing of European and U.S. sanctions.
- While the incident on 25 November is a clear escalation of Russia-Ukraine tensions, Moscow is unlikely to sanction a land invasion of Ukraine since that would almost certainly lead to a robust response by Western powers, such as dispatching Nato forces to the country. Moreover, the potential for additional sanctions on Russia acts as a disincentive for an escalation on the part of Moscow. Instead, a more likely outcome is an intensification of fighting between pro-Russian separatist groups in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian armed forces in the one-month outlook.
- The Russian government, which is particularly critical of Poroshenko, will also decide against escalating any military action since that would heighten the possibility of his re-election in March 2019.
- Aggressive and nationalistic rhetoric is likely to continue on both sides, which will do little to help normalise Russia-Ukraine relations.
- Any further escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine will probably lead to an extension of martial law, heightening the possibility that elections would need to be delayed or cancelled. This will increase the risk of social unrest across Ukraine, potentially escalating into wider anti-government protests.
- If there is no significant escalation, the government is unlikely to call for an extension of martial law. This in turn means that while it is likely to benefit Poroshenko’s campaign in the short-term, opposition candidates will ensure that there will be intensified focus on Poroshenko’s overall record in the three-month period ahead of the vote. This will lessen the likelihood of his re-election.
- The Ukrainian parliament voted by 272 votes to 30 in favour of adopting an amended version of President Petro Poroshenko’s initial proposals. Those had included 60-day period of martial law covering the entire country.
- The measure covers all of Ukraine’s regions on the Sea of Azov, those bordering the breakaway state of Transnistria where there is a Russian military presence, and all the eastern regions bordering Russia.
- Under the order, authorities can ban protests and strikes, implement curfews and conscript citizens for military service. Ukraine also introduced a ban on all Russian males between the ages of 16 and 60 entering the country while martial law is effective.
- Seeking to address concerns that martial law could be used to disrupt planned presidential elections, Poroshenko confirmed that these will be held on 31 March as ‘there will be no reason to postpone them’.