This morning, martial law went into effect in 10 out of Ukraine’s 24 regions. The move comes several days after a fierce debate in the Ukrainian Parliament concluded with an affirmative vote on the measure. The measure will cover nearly half the country and includes every Ukrainian region which borders Russia, occupied Ukrainian territory like Donetsk, and the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria. This morning in a bizarre and lurid sign of the escalation between Russia and Ukraine that prompted the martial law order, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared: “Kiev is actively stirring up anti-Russian sentiment. That’s all they have. And it works. If they want to eat babies for breakfast tomorrow, they’ll probably give them babies. They’ll say they just want to eat! But that’s very shortsighted.”
The martial law vote took place in the wake of an incident on Nov. 25, when a large Russian Coast Guard cutter opened fire on a squadron of three much smaller Ukrainian ships as they attempted to traverse the Kerch Strait. One of the Ukrainian ships was rammed by a naval Russian vessel according to a video released by the Ukrainian government. The three vessels were then seized along with the two dozen Ukrainian sailors detained and with several operated on for wounds suffered from flying glass. The next day during an emergency session, the Ukrainian Parliament passed the motion authorizing the imposition of martial law in the 10 regions for a period of 30 days as a response to the attack.
Various provisions of the Ukrainian constitution have been frozen for the duration of the month of martial law but extreme measures, like having soldiers deployed in city streets, will only be triggered in the event of a Russian ground invasion.
Free passage through the Kerch Strait is guaranteed by a 2003 international agreement to which both Russia and Ukraine’s governments are signatories. But tensions between the two nations’ naval fleets in the Sea of Azov have long been evident, and those who follow the Russian-Ukrainian conflict closely have, for at least the last six months, expected the next flare-up between Moscow and Kiev to be set here. Though the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for four years, this incident is noteworthy for the fact that this was the first direct confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, which did not involve deniable proxy forces.
In the regions affected by martial law, uncertainty reigned, though reports of chaos and panic have been wildly overstated. My own relatives living in Odessa, one of the regions under lockdown, were as disconcerted, angry, and fearful as everyone else. The price of food has been jacked up in most stores, and while most ATMs have not yet been emptied, and there is still toilet paper and cat food in the supermarkets, the cost of exchanging Ukrainian hryvnas for dollars has jumped. Some amount of hoarding of food products has been reported across various regions but for the most part, there is not yet the franticness one associates with a state of emergency. Most Ukrainians, however, do seem convinced that the risk of full-blown war with Russia has risen significantly.
The Ukrainian gunboats had been sailing to the straits from the port of Odessa and so many, if not most, of the sailors on board were local boys, which has been a source of anger and unrest among residents of the city. The commanding admiral of the Ukrainian fleet swiftly issued an affecting open letter to the captured sailors instructing them to be brave. Insistent grumbling about a possible disruption of the upcoming presidential elections slated for late March, in which sitting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is trailing badly at the polls, has also now been echoed by Russian state television. As well as by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Many Ukrainians have responded with anger at what they view as a transparent election ploy (Poroshenko did appear at a military base today wearing military fatigues), and social media has been seething with rumors and fierce political arguments over the last 48 hours. Officially, the Ukrainian presidential administration has promised that emergency measures will be lifted before the end of December, several days before the start of the election campaign season.
This morning Putin accused his Ukrainian counterpart of organizing a provocation for political purposes. President Putin is known to be livid at Poroshenko over the schism between the Ukrainian and Russian churches and is openly hoping for another president to replace him in Kiev next year.