Martial Law in Ukraine: So What Was the Point?
27 December, 2018

The period of martial law, enacted in 10 regions of Ukraine in late November, has ended. During this time, large-scale training of soldiers and reserves took place on military bases. Here Armed Forces of Ukraine reservists practice at the Desna Training Center, Chernihiv region, December 19, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko

The 30-day term of the first period of martial law in the history of independent Ukraine has ended. Yet the country has faced the threat of full-scale incursion by the Russian army since 2014.

Calls for implementing martial law have been made since the beginning of the conflict. In December 2014, President Petro Poroshenko promised to declare a state of martial law “in the event of Russia launching an offensive operation in eastern Ukraine.” That happened. The Ukrainian army lost the Donetsk Airport and the strategic rail hub Debaltseve. But only two and a half years later, when the contact line seemed firmly fixed and the intensity of combat actions had decreased, did the president declare martial law.

READ MORE: Ukraine Declares Martial Law in Regions Bordering Russia and Unrecognized Transnistria

Were there actual grounds for declaring martial law at this time? What has changed in Ukraine over the 30 days it was in place? Hromadske reports on the significance of 30 days of martial law for Ukraine.

Why was martial law declared?

The formal reason for declaring martial law was the attack and capture of three Ukrainian Navy boats by Russia on November 25. The Ukrainian boats were in the neutral waters of the Black Sea, attempting to cross the Kerch Strait on their way to the Ukrainian port Mariupol.

Six Ukrainian naval officers were wounded by artillery fire. All 24 crew members of the Ukrainian vessels were taken hostage. The following day the Ukrainian Parliament voted to put martial law in place in 10 regions – those bordering the Russian Federation, occupied Crimea and Transnistria.

READ MORE: Russia Fires on Ukrainian Ship in the Kerch Strait

Poroshenko stated in an interview that this was the first time Russia had openly attacked Ukraine under its own flag, as opposed to posing as rebels or separatists. He believes this meets the United Nations’ definition of military aggression and requires a response from Ukraine.

The resolution of the UN General Assembly, echoed in Ukraine’s 1992 Defense Law defines aggression as including “the sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State.”

Therefore Russia’s act of sending military personnel without identifying insignia to occupy the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 was an act of aggression against Ukraine according to both Ukrainian law and the UN resolution.

The question of why the Ukrainian authorities did not take the measures demanded by the Constitution and Defense Law at the time – or Poroshenko when he became president – remains unanswered.

Is there a threat of Russian attack?

The second argument for legally introducing martial law was the threat of an attack from Russia. On November 27, the President and military leadership made statements that Russia was preparing a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The amount of Russian soldiers and military equipment positioned at the Ukrainian border and border with occupied Crimea had been steadily increasing between 2014 and 2018. The Russian side explained this with the need to respond to NATO’s strengthened position on Eastern Europe.

READ MORE: What Do Ukrainians Across the Country Make of Martial Law?

Over the last few years, western media and military analysts have repeatedly reported on the buildup of Russian military attack forces in southern Russia along the Ukrainian border. And top Russian officials have not hidden that fact.

Google Earth shots of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov region, Russia. Top: August 2018, bottom: October 2018. 

In 2014, intelligence from NATO and Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) stated that Russia had deployed around 40,000 servicemen on the Ukrainian border. In 2017, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry stated that a 55-thousand-strong military contingent was already stationed at the Ukrainian border. It was also in 2017 when military experts first talked about an increasing threat from the North, where Russia had deployed four units: three combined arms units and a tank unit.   

In 2018, the head of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko stated that the concentration of Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border was the highest it's been since 2014. According to him, over two weeks in October, the number of T-64M tanks had increased by four times. This was also confirmed in satellite images in Google Earth. Images from August this year show that there were almost no tanks at the base outside Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in Rostov, Russia. However, in the images from October, the number of tanks had increased to 250.

READ MORE: Martial Law in Ukraine: What Happens Now?

The Ukrainian General Staff claim that Russians were deployed to bases in Buryatia and Primorsky Krai, allegedly to participate in the Vostok-2018 military exercises. However, as is traditionally the case with Russia’s exercises, some of the equipment was left 18 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border.  

When Ukrainian paratroopers were sent to the Russian border, President Poroshenko announced that “overall, around Ukraine, along the state border an in the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, ground forces of over 80,000 servicemen, around 1,400 artillery and rocket salvo fire systems, 900 tanks, 2,300 armored vehicles, more than 500 planes and 300 helicopters had been deployed.”

These same figures were reported by Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak in May of this year. At the time, he noted that this was not enough for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, according to him, the infrastructure that had been created gave the Russian side the possibility of increasing their military resources over a period of two weeks to two months – mainly the forces from the western and southern military districts.

Military experts also do not share Poroshenko’s belief that the Russian military forces are preparing to cross the border in the near future.

READ MORE: Kerch Prisoners: What we Know About the Captured Ukrainians

“The build-up of non-camouflaged equipment does not mean an attack group is forming,” says security expert from the Maidan of Foreign Affairs fund Oleksandr Polishchuk. According to him, Russia was sending troops to the Ukrainian border, but this is what has been constantly happening over the last four years. Polishchuk supported the idea of introducing martial law, however he was skeptical about its timing: “Even if you believe the President that the accumulation of equipment began in August, then why didn’t he introduce martial law then?”

The Presidential Administration refused to give Hromadske the data on the accumulation of Russian troops and equipment, which the President shared in interviews with three national channels immediately after the introduction of martial law. Our own examination of satellite images did not show an increase in the amount of Russian equipment near the Ukrainian border. The only exception was at the base in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. 250 tanks were actually deployed there in September-October 2018. The number of military aircraft at the aerodrome in Millerovo, Rostov, had only increased slightly to 49, compared to 36 in March 2015. The amount of equipment at the other military bases and aerodromes had not significantly increased, and had even decreased in some places compared to previous years.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Navy: Reform and Euro-Atlantic Integration

Experts say that the main threat is the militarization of Crimea, and not the Russian military presence near the Ukrainian border.

According to the online publication BlackSeaNews, all of Crimea’s defense companies are becoming, or preparing to become, officially integrated into Russian corporations. Since 2014,  all the Soviet military infrastructure, and particularly the nuclear weapons storage facilities, has been restored on the peninsula.

In an interview with Hromadske, Deputy Chair of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies Oleksandr Khara stated that indirect evidence, received from eyewitnesses to Ukrainian intelligence, even gives grounds to believe that there are already nuclear weapons in Crimea.  

“Crimea and the southern military districts –  these are the fists that could hit us,” says Khara.

In spring, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry cited data that the number of Russian military personnel in occupied Crimea had increased from 12,000 to 32,000. Additionally, Russia had deployed 40 tanks, almost 700 armored vehicles, 174 artillery systems, 130 military planes, eight ships and submarines equipped with Caliber cruise missiles, C-400 missile systems Iskander, Bastion and Bal and created the conditions for a strategic aviation base in Crimea. Over the next four years, Russia plans to increase its military contingent there by 250%.  

The redeployment of military equipment, which has been recorded by local residents, is likely to be evidence of this plan coming together. Russian military command are now calling Crimea an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and claim that this grouping is capable of exercising full control over the waterspace of the Black and Azov seas, as well as the adjoining territories. And long-range Tu-22 MZ bombers could target the entire territory of Europe.

Firing drills of reservists at a military training ground near Kherson, Ukraine, on December 8, 2018. In November 2018, martial was introduced for 30 days in 10 Ukrainian regions, including the Kherson one that borders annexed Crimea. Photo: EPA-EFE / Ivan Antypenko

“Martial law has been announced, but no one knows what to do”

The main reason behind introducing martial law, according to the president, was supposed to be increasing the regions’ readiness for a potential act of aggression. The NSDC had already passed a decree on building up the Ukrainian Armed Forces to full combat capacity in 2014. Moreover, Poroshenko announced that restrictions on rights and freedoms of citizens during martial law would only be limited if there was an extreme necessity to do so. But the essence of martial law is giving the military additional powers to determine which issues are the priority for increasing defense capabilities and limiting rights and freedoms, which is not possible during peacetime.

If the main point of martial law was simply to prepare the armed forces, then this poses the completely rhetorical question of: why are the armed forces of a country, which has already been at war for four years, not operating at full combat capacity? And who is responsible for this?

READ MORE: The Meaning of the Sea of Azov for Ukraine

Polishchuk, who was involved in the preparations for one of the projects on introducing martial law, asserts that what is going on now is a distortion of idea of martial law itself and of the events that should have taken place. According to him, in order to implement martial law, you need to be ready and have a premeditated plan for taking urgent measures.  

“Martial law has been announced, but no one knows what to do,” Polishchuk comments.

On December 3, the eighth day of martial law, the Defense Ministry gathered to discuss the plan for implementing martial law. And it wasn’t until December 12, the seventeenth day of martial law, that the government approved this plan and the provision of measures for the legal implementation of martial law in certain regions of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian parliament should have been operating in sessions until the end of martial law and revising defense legislation together with the national security and defense committee. The parliament operated in the usual plenary regime, and the committee proposed to draft bills for consideration: one on creating territorial conscription points based on the conscript centers and one on information security (known as the draft bill that would legalize censorship.)

Instead, over the course of this month, border guards denied over 1,500 Russian citizens entry into Ukraine. According to the spokesperson for the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service Oleh Slobodyan, this only applied to those who were unable to confirm the purpose of their visit, or those who had violated procedure during a previous visit to Ukraine.

Security was also tightened at state and military sites, as well as important infrastructure sites. There was increased presence of armed police and National Guard officers at train stations and near bridges. 

Over the course of the month, meetings for the first operational reserves took place. Around 40,000 reservists, which included former servicemen with combat experience, participated in these meetings. In the regions where martial law had been implemented, regional defense councils, through which the General Staff headquarters could oversee territorial defense in the event of an armed Russian invasion, met. These councils did not meet regularly before, and in some places – like Luhansk, which is already in its fifth year of war – they were only created after martial law was implemented.

Hromadske visited the contact line in Donetsk and Luhansk regions last week and spoke to the leadership of the military-civilian administration, police and military, in order to find out how martial law had affected them. According to our interlocutors, nothing had changed in the frontline regions, except for the improvement of the warning system for the civilian population and provision of additional shelters. However, when we spoke to locals, it appears as though the civilian population knew nothing about this. They also did not know the means and routes of evacuation in case of active military combat.

Getting around the frontline regions and crossing the demarcation line has not become more difficult. Granted, there are more patrol officers on the roads, but the procedure for checking documents and car inspections remain to be more of a formality.

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE: Relatives of Ukrainian Personnel Wounded in Kerch Strait Incident Speak to Hromadske

The exit and entry checkpoints are operating under the regular regime. Out of the ten martial law regions, it was only the Mykolayiv region leadership that tried to ban public events and peaceful gatherings. Soldiers and locals in the conflict areas noted an insignificant increase in shelling from the Russia-backed separatist side in the first days of martial law, however, these days it’s mostly calm at the frontline.

An armed Ukrainian serviceman at the sea port in Berdyansk, in the Zaporizhya region of Ukraine on December 3, 2018. Security at state, military and other important infrastructure objects has been enhanced in Ukraine with introduction of martial law. EPA-EFE / Irina Gorbasyova

Did martial law solve the real problems?

The main question concerning the introduction of martial is why now, and not when Russia annexed Crimea, or during the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve? In the past four years of the war in Donbas, there’s not been a single event that has made the president reach for the military button. Could the answer lie in his pre-election slogan: "Army! Faith! Language!", a line which the President has started following over the past year? 

“It’s completely clear why Poroshenko has gone down the patriotic route before the elections. If he didn’t introduce martial law, it would have contradicted his pro-military strategy,” Khara says.

There were whispers in parliament that the elections where the main reason for introducing martial law. The president initially wanted to introduce martial law for two months, which would have meant postponing the elections. But the MPs didn't go for that idea.

In a country like Ukraine, which has been battling Russian aggression for five years and is still facing the threat of an even more extensive invasion, there needs to be a coherent system of governance and effective strategies for military and civilian protection. Their absence almost guarantees defeat by a significantly stronger opponent. Of course, it’s good that martial law has become the impetus for building these systems, but it’s not so good that the country’s leadership have only thought of this now. After all, there is no certainty that this development will continue now martial law is over. And 30 days is not long enough to prepare the country for the current threat.

The lack of political will and the blurred responsibilities are the two most important issues that need to be resolved, says Polishchuk: “Russia is becoming an existential threat. We have to move away from manual control and move towards planning, scanning the horizon.”

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While there is war, annexation and occupation, the question of martial law will always be legitimate, says Khara.

“The very existence of the Ukrainian state is a provocation for Russia. If Russia deescalates, then the war will cease, but if Ukraine deescalates itself, then Ukraine will cease to exist.”

/By Mariia Ulianovska and Konstantin Reutski

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko and Larissa Babij