Ukraine’s President Calls For Martial Law, Citing Russian Aggression at Sea

Patrick Goodenough | November 25, 2018 | 8:41pm EST
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A photo provided by Russia’s Federal Security Service in Crimea shows a Russian ship pursuing a Ukrainian naval vessel near the Kerch Strait. (Photo: FSB)

( – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said late Sunday he would seek parliamentary approval to impose martial law, characterizing the move not as a declaration of war but as a defensive action in response to a clash between Ukrainian and Russian naval vessels near Russian-occupied Crimea.

“The introduction of martial law in no way will not involve actions outside the sovereign territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said on Twitter after an emergency security meeting. “Martial law does not imply announcement of war. It is introduced exclusively for defense of Ukraine.”

The Kyiv Post reported that martial law, if approved for the requested 60-day period by lawmakers on Monday, could entail compulsory military service, media restrictions, and a ban on public demonstrations, among other measures.

Both Russia and Ukraine requested an emergency U.N. Security Council session, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley tweeted on Sunday evening that a meeting has been scheduled for 11 AM on Monday.

Earlier in the day, three Ukrainian vessels transiting from Odessa to the port of Mariupol some 380 miles to the east – a journey requiring passage through the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov – were seized by Russian ships, in what Moscow claims are “Russian territorial waters.”

Ukraine’s navy said the Russians had opened fire at its ships and that a Russian vessel had rammed a naval tug, causing damage to its hull and engines.

It said the Russian actions violated its right of innocent passage under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as a 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement and “the established rules of maritime behavior.”

“We consider Russia’s actions as an act of aggression,” Poroshenko said. “There are no red lines for Russia. We consider such actions categorically unacceptable. And this aggression has already drawn the appropriate consequences.”

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which is responsible for guarding the country’s borders, said in a statement the Ukrainian vessels had not responded to “legitimate demands” to halt and had then “made dangerous maneuvers.”

The FSB charged that it had evidence – and would release it in due course – that Ukraine had “prepared and orchestrated provocations” in the area.

It confirmed that Russian “weapons were used to force the Ukrainian warships to stop,” and said three Ukrainian sailors had received medical treatment for non-life threatening injuries sustained in the incident.

(Image: Google Maps)

According to the Ukrainian navy, six personnel were injured. It said the Russians had then towed the tug and the other two vessels involved – small armored artillery boats.

“The use of weapons on the part of Russia, the attack of Ukrainian ships was unprovoked,” Poroshenko said. He described the vessels’ voyage as a routine operation to move Ukrainian ships to Ukraine’s ports at Mariupol and nearby Berdyansk.

President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014, following a referendum of its inhabitants that was not recognized by most of the international community.

Before 2014, an estimated 8,000 ships, mostly Ukrainian and Russian, each year transited the Kerch Strait, which is about 28 miles long and just three miles wide at its narrowest point. After the annexation, Ukraine reported to the international maritime authorities that it could no longer guarantee safety of navigation to and near Crimean ports.

Last May Russia opened a 11-mile-long bridge spanning the strait, and linking Crimea with the Russian region of Krasnodar Krai.

The 2003 bilateral agreement which Kyiv says Russia has breached was signed by Putin and then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. It reaffirmed that the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov were ”inland waters of Ukraine and Russia” and that civilian and military ships of both countries enjoyed freedom of navigation there.

Poroshenko on Sunday appealed for support from the European Union and what he called the entire “pro-Ukrainian” world.

In a statement, E.U. foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijanic called on Moscow to “restore freedom of passage” through the strait – which she said Russia had closed to maritime traffic – and urged all parties to “act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.”

Kocijanic reiterated that the E.U. does not recognize Russia’s “illegal annexation” of Crimea, and that it viewed the building of the Kerch Bridge without Kyiv’s consent as “another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Support also came from NATO, whose spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance “fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, including its navigational rights in its territorial waters.”

“We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law,” she said, urging “restraint and de-escalation.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO but, together with fellow aspirant Georgia, was told at a summit ten years ago that membership would be open to it at some future, unspecified date.

The Kremlin’s determination to prevent that from happening is viewed as a key factor in its policies towards both former Soviet states, including its 2008 invasion of Georgia, support for pro-Russian separatist regions in both countries, and the annexation of Crimea.

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