What Does Martial Law in Ukraine Have to Do With Upcoming Presidential Elections?
29 November, 2018

The introduction of martial law in Ukraine for a period of two months could have been a decisive factor in the upcoming presidential campaign and led to postponing the date of the elections. But this did not happen. Hromadske explains why.

At 10 p.m. on November 25, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urgently convened the country’s war council, an informal body that includes all the heads of military and security forces, some of whom – like Interior Minister Arsen Avakov – are not legally subordinate to the head of state.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaking during a parliamentary session and vote on the introduction of martial law in certain regions of Ukraine, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

A few hours prior to this, Russian border guards and members of the security service (FSB) attacked the Ukrainian tugboat “Yany Kapu” and two military ships – the Nikopol and Berdyansk. At that time, the fate of these ships was unknown. However videos started to appear on social networks, which showed a Russian ship ramming the Ukrainian tugboat, air attacks on Ukrainian naval officers near the Kerch bridge, and Russian helicopters circling above.

The Ukrainian military vessels were headed to the port of Berdyansk, where the Ukrainian government is setting up a military-naval base. Yet it is unclear whether the military personnel took into account the fact that the Russians had already tried to prevent the redeployment of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait in September. As a result of this latest operation, Ukraine lost three ships, which were captured by Russia.

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

The only detail of the war council meeting relayed by some of its participants was that the suggestion that the president impose martial law came from National Security and Defense Council Secretary (NSDC) Oleksandr Turchynov. “All the participants agreed with the proposal, particularly the president,” Hromadske’s source says.

An emergency meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, where they considered the war council’s proposition on introducing martial law in Ukraine, Kyiv, November 25-26, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/MYKHAILO MARKIV/POOL

The president explained that he had received intelligence that Russian troops were gathering near the Ukrainian border and that announcing martial law would allow him to “not lose a single second in ensuring the defense of Ukrainian territory” in the event of an intervention.

At a meeting of the NSDC, which began at midnight on November 26, the president proposed to place the country under martial law for a period of 60 days. At that point, there were reports that all three Ukrainian ships, 22 naval officers and two Ukrainian security service (SBU) employees had been captured. Ukraine had already officially appealed to the United States for support and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Two birds, one stone

The president assured everyone that imposing martial law was strictly a matter of national security and defense. However, the idea had been discussed during Presidential Administration meetings two years ago. In particular, the question arose at a meeting dedicated to a completely different issue – the presidential elections.

In March 2016, the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda published information about a meeting of an informal body of top government officials devoted to strategizing for the 2018 elections, which had taken place at the Presidential Administration two months earlier.

NSDC Secretary Oleksandr Tyurchynov speaking during a parliamentary session and vote on the introduction of martial law in certain regions of Ukraine, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: Volodymyr Hontar/UNIAN

According to the journalists, Turchynov proposed declaring martial law during the election period. The idea was rejected at the time. “They told him: [Oleksandr], martial law can last two months, but not two years,” cited Ukrayinska Pravda.

This summer, another idea leaked through the corridors of the Presidential Administration. In August, the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia stated, citing a source, that Poroshenko’s team was considering the possibility of delaying the presidential election until June 7, 2019. However, the Constitution states that the first round of elections must take place on the last Sunday in March of the president’s fifth year in office – that is, March 31, 2019.

According to the publication, the supporters of this proposal argued the following: First, the lower the turnout, the easier it is to manipulate the results of the elections. And during the summer vacation period turnout is naturally lower. Second, young people are the least disciplined electoral group and are even less inclined to go to the polls in the summer. Moreover, the 18+ group are not traditionally fans of the ruling power. Third, the president’s political technologists seriously think that voters are kinder in the summer than in the spring, and therefore more likely to forgive the incumbent leader for his mistakes.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak (center) speaking with parliamentarians during a parliamentary session and vote on the introduction of martial law in certain regions of Ukraine, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

The president’s recent proposal to place the country under martial law for 60 days would disrupt the campaign cycle, and parliament would have to set a new date for the presidential elections. According to Ukrainian law, registration for presidential candidates should open on December 31 and last until February 4. Meanwhile, the legislation regulating martial law prohibits holding elections in the country in this period.

In that scenario, Poroshenko would have gotten more time to try and catch up with Yulia Tymoshenko, who, according to the latest sociological surveys, has twice as much support. Apart from that, if the date of the elections were to change, all of Poroshenko’s potential competitors would have to adjust their campaign strategies, which are usually calculated to the exact number of weeks before the election.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections: Polls Reveal Potential Winners and Losers


What’s strange is that Poroshenko has actually been against the idea of martial law throughout his presidency. He has even boasted of the fact that Ukrainians have not felt restricted over the course of the war in the Donbas.

“We have not just saved Ukraine. During war, we have saved its democracy,” the head of state said during a speech in the Ukrainian parliament on June 4, 2015. “Despite the fact that this regime would give me, personally, more power, I could not do it. I understand what a shock and ordeal it would be for my compatriots.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (center) speaking from the parliament podium as MPs opposed to the idea of martial law try and prevent him from speaking, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

There is also a more rational explanation for not putting Ukrainians through such drastic measures. Under martial law, the state cannot rely on international loans and weapon supplies. Poroshenko has also publicly voiced these arguments many times.

The official explanation for the metamorphosis of Poroshenko’s views is that this is the first time Russians have openly and demonstratively attacked Ukrainian military personnel. After all, Russia continues to deny its military presence in the Donbas, the same way its president Vladimir Putin denied the involvement of Russian troops in the annexation of Crimea. The Ukrainian president had to react to Russia’s actions. International law clearly refers to these situations as military aggression.

Declaring war on Russia is also not an option because doing so would give rise to a large-scale intervention from the significantly stronger Russian army.

Leaders of Ukraine’s security forces during a parliamentary session and vote on the introduction of martial law in certain regions of Ukraine, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. From right to left on the bottom row: First Deputy Head of the SBU Vitaliy Malikov, Head of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko, SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak and Interior Minister advisor Anton Herashchenko. Photo: VOLODYMYR HONTAR/UNIAN

Poroshenko explained that in this situation simply summoning the UN Security Council and appealing to NATO, the European Union, and international partners is not enough, and therefore decided to call for martial law.

The international community has publicly supported Ukraine and has nothing against the temporary restrictions on civil liberties. The International Monetary Fund has even promised that it will not hinder Ukraine in receiving the next loan tranche, which should come in at the start of December.  

Tricky Compromise

According to Ukrainian law, the president does not have the power to introduce martial law on his own; he needs parliament to approve the action by adopting appropriate legislation. Yet Poroshenko’s allies in the parliamentary coalition with the People’s Front faction were concerned about the expediency of martial law.

On the morning of November 26, Turchynov’s allies in People’s Front (the NSDC Secretary is a member) gathered for a meeting, where they had to decide whether or not the country needed martial law. People’s Front MPs did not want to disclose the details of the discussion publicly, invoking factional discipline. However, unofficially, three member MPs told Hromadske the same story.

MPs from Radical Party headed by Oleh Lyashko (center) demand that Chairman of the parliament Andriy PArubiy (center right) call a break to the session, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: VOLODYMYR HONTAR/UNIAN

Turchynov was not at the meeting, neither was the head of the party’s political council Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was on an foreign visit. The head of the faction Maksym Burbak and Interior Minister Avakov chaired the meeting. Surprisingly, Avakov, who did not protest the idea of placing the country under martial law for two months at the war council meeting, expressed doubts over the feasibility of taking such actions. This was supported by Burbak, who calls himself an ally of Yatsenyuk. Turchynov’s ally and Chairman of the parliament Andriy Parubiy, on the contrary, fully supported the president’s idea. However, they were in the minority.

Batkivshchyna faction leader Yulia Tymoshenko (center) surrounded by Radical Party MPs and their leader Oleh Lyashko (left) during an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: VOLODYMYR HONTAR/UNIAN

The outcome of these internal discussions appeared in Facebook posts from the MPs. In particular, MP Leonid Yemets stated that the faction had decided to support the president’s decree, however insisted that martial law be declared for 30 days and only in certain areas, not the whole country. The president’s allies in Petro Poroshenko Bloc turned out to be more obedient and in their faction voted almost unanimously in support of martial law.

The parliamentary session on the issue was scheduled for 4 p.m. But the MPs were unable to start. Oleh Lyashko’s faction, whose MPs had being saying they were in support of the decree all day, turned and blocked the podium from where the president was to speak.

Parubiy then called all the faction heads into his office for a meeting, in which the president deliberately did not take part. The result was a compromise: martial law would last for one month and in 10 regions bordering Russia, the unrecognized Transnistrian republic and those on the coast of the Black and Azov seas. This includes the regions of Vinnytsia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Mykolayiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Odesa, Chernihiv, and Kherson.

Explanations and Implications

Why did Poroshenko and Turchynov back down so easily from the idea they considered suitable and agree with the proposals from deputies who are definitely less informed on the threats posed by Russian aggression?

The president’s official line is that he wanted to show critics that imposing martial law is purely a reaction to the threat of wide-scale Russian aggression, and not an attempt to postpone the date of the presidential elections.

“I emphasize the fact that martial law will be applied only in the event of a ground operation by the regular troops of the Russian Federation outside the Joint Forces Operation and outside of illegally annexed Crimea,” the president stated in his speech in parliament.

To support this, the MPs also approved a resolution on holding the elections on March 31, and therefore in accordance with what is established by constitutional law.

From left to right: MPs from Opposition Bloc Mykhailo Dobkin, Yevhen Murayev, Vadym Novynskyy during an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: VLADYSLAV MUSIYENKO/POOL/UNIAN

Unofficially, people in the president’s circle are saying that Poroshenko made a tactical decision to demand more, so he could negotiate down to what he actually wanted. It seems this was the only way he could convince the MPs, including his allies in the coalition, to agree to impose martial law, even only in ten border regions.

Yet this explanation seems strange, as the president could have simply given them concrete examples that testify to the danger he described at the midnight meeting with the NSDC on November 26. For example, as Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations Volodymyr Yelchenko told the Security Council on November 27, according to Ukrainian intelligence, “there is a clear threat for invasion and seizing of Mariupol and Berdyansk.”

Meanwhile, part of the People’s Front faction, which had insisted on certain terms, is convinced that its position forced Poroshenko to compromise. “Our voices were decisive in this situation. With all due respect to other factions and groups, they are not part of the [parliamentary] coalition. They were not involved in the most difficult and nonpublic ‘discussion’,” stated MP Yemets.

The president’s allies assert that they could have gotten the first version of the decree passed through parliament even without their colleagues from People’s Front, but Poroshenko decided not to push; if necessary, parliament could always extend the period of martial law or increase the territorial range it applies to. A convincing precedent of the capacities of the president and NSDC secretary to win parliamentary approval of similar measures is the story of the so-called law “on the special status” of Donbas, which provides for local self-governance in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

However, the risk that the president would not persuade the MPs was real. Aside from the members of People’s Front siding with Avakov and Yatsenyuk, Lyashko’s Radical Party and Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna also opposed Poroshenko’s measure. While Lyashko has been extremely critical of Tymoshenko in the past years, here he openly consulted with her on a plan of action and turned his criticism toward the president.

Lyashko’s recent shift in alliance may have been influenced by Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of System Capital Management (SCM) corporation, who numerous investigative journalists have uncovered as the former’s patron. Akhmetov’s other proteges in parliament – MPs from the Opposition Bloc – also opposed any declaration of martial law. The situation in the Kerch Strait directly affects SCM’s owner, as Russia’s blockade of shipping traffic in the Sea of Azov has made it difficult to transport production from its metallurgical holdings in Mariupol (Illich Iron and Steel Works and Azovstal).

Former owner of Privatbank Ihor Kolomoisky, who partly controls the parliamentary group Vidrodzhennia [Renaissance] and has indirect influence on some members of People’s Front, is also a critic of Poroshenko. He has declared his wish that Tymoshenko win the upcoming election.

READ MORE: What’s Happening with the Kolomoisky Case in London?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman in the parliament hall after the results of the vote on martial law in certain regions of Ukraine had been announced, Kyiv, November 26, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

The decision to impose martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine will have consequences for the course of the presidential campaign, no matter how strongly Poroshenko denies any political motive behind his decision. The first day the law was enacted, the authorities launched an information campaign proclaiming Ukraine’s readiness to respond to Russian aggression.

By imposing martial law, Poroshenko has created an alternative information field for the month of December, which his main opponent, Tymoshenko, could have used to bring up the topic of increasing utilities costs. This is the month Ukrainians will receive their first bills at new, higher rates. As long as the leader of Batkivshchyna appeals to voters’ desire to economize, Poroshenko will put pressure on their feelings of security and patriotism.

/By Maksym Kamenev