Ukraine’s decision to impose martial law in parts of its territory in the wake of the latest Russian military provocation is not helpful and does not answer Ukraine’s strategic weaknesses.
‘I do not see anything changed. No armoured vehicles on the streets, no curfew … I can still go to work and to shops freely’, said Nataliya Zaniechka as she walked back home, crossing Freedom Square in Kharkiv, one of the largest city squares in Europe. Back in 2014, Ukraine’s second-largest city was close to falling prey to Russian-backed forces waging war against the country’s territorial integrity. But almost five years later, nothing in the centre of Kharkiv seemed to remind people that the Ukrainian government declared martial law over the city and other territories during the early hours of 28 November 2018. Both military authorities and the city mayor declined to comment on the way this government measure affects their work. On the Hoptivka border crossing point to Russia, some 30 kilometres north, the spokeswoman of the border guard corps had only a written statement to read out: ‘We are ordered to work in full military preparedness. Yet nothing has changed in the management of the border with the Russian Federation’.
And, indeed, three weeks into the martial law, not much has changed. The emergency measure was pushed forth by President Petro Poroshenko following the attack of three Ukrainian navy ships by the Russian military in the Black Sea on 25 November; all ships were taken, and 24 sailors made prisoners. Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) voted for martial law to be introduced in 10 border regions of Ukraine. Provided it is not extended, it has to last for 30 days, until 26 December.
Debates are raging in Ukraine on the relevance of introducing martial law. According to security expert and Editor-in-Chief of UA: Ukraine Analytica Hanna Shelest, the measure should be seen as a show of strength that ‘can demonstrate that the government is not only asking for [international] support but also preparing to react to further provocations’. Military expert Vyacheslav Tseluiko, quoted in the Kyiv Post, sees the introduction of martial law as a way to conduct large military exercises and to check on the responsiveness of state institutions across the country.
Yet many critics see it as yet one more election wheeze from President Poroshenko that is unlikely to affect the military situation on the ground. And it is indeed the case that the practical implications of the introduction of martial law remain at odds with the alarming political discourse which continues to prevail in the Ukrainian capital.
At the practical level, martial law entails the training of a few thousands reserve soldiers. Ukraine’s army numbers some 255,000 soldiers on duty and about 158,000 reserve troops. ‘Not all of them have been called up, far from it’, explains Myroslav Hay, coordinator of reserve soldiers at Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence. Another implication from the introduction of martial law is that all male citizens of Russia aged 16 to 60 are banned from entering Ukraine for an unspecified period of time; over 900 of them were refused entry since 26 November. Yet neither the ban on Russian citizens nor the calling up of reserves required the imposition of martial law, so the only concrete consequence of martial law is the postponing of local elections in 123 territorial communities and entities.
The paucity of action under martial law is in sharp contrast to President Poroshenko’s diplomatic and media activism. The Ukrainian head of state took to international media outlets to warn of an imminent ‘full-scale war’ Russia would wage against his country. Yet Kiev’s warning of Russian troops massing at the borders remain unconfirmed. As Poroshenko trails in the polls ahead of March 2019 elections, he has tried to justify his choice to introduce martial law to his voters, as well as to his international partners.
President Poroshenko is facing increasing criticism for his political exploitation of the Kerch incident. Why, ask opposition parties, is martial law more justified now than back in the dramatic battles for Ilovaisk in the summer of 2014 or Debaltseve in February 2015? What may be done within the 30 days of martial law to improve the country’s military capacities that was not done in the past four years? And, if the Russian threat is so pressing, how can one explain the fact that Petro Poroshenko accepted to reduce the scope of his initial proposal to implement martial law over the whole country for 60 days to just the imposition of martial law over parts of the country and for half the proposed time?
Apart from political controversies, the introduction of partial martial law has highlighted the dramatic military reality Ukraine faces. The country’s land units are in an unquestionably better position now, but the navy hardly recovered from the loss of some 70% of its ships during the annexation of Crimea. During the latest Kerch Strait confrontation, Ukraine’s top military commanders did not have any means to oppose the Russian navy, while a mere three helicopters and two Sukhoi jets also gave Russia control of the airspace.
In order to improve its navy capacities, Ukraine’s high command had placed its bets on the building in Kiev of six Gurza-M gunboats. Yet two of them are now seized and kept in Russian-annexed Kerch. So, overall, the Ukrainian navy includes one frigate, three amphibious landing vessels, two missile cutters, eight gunboats, one minesweeper, and around 20 other small auxiliary vessels. The imbalance with Russia’s Black Sea fleet is obvious, and as military expert Ivan Aparshyn points out, martial law would only bring significant results if the defence budget is increased from five to 10 billion hryvnias ($179 to $358 million, respectively).
As Petro Poroshenko does not have the military capacity to face Moscow, he has called yet again on the solidarity of the international community. Yet expressions of serious concerns from most Western leaders are the sum total of international reactions; neither NATO nor the United States are about to dispatch any of their warships to the Azov Sea, as Poroshenko asked.
Such a lack of reaction betrays the perception of the conflict as a forgotten war with no prospect of quick resolution, one that is no longer a top priority of the international community. In his characteristic way, US President Donald Trump seemed to sum it up quite well on 26 November: ‘We do not like what's happening either way. We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out’.
Whatever happens, one conclusion is obvious: Ukraine’s temporary and partial martial law won’t ‘straighten’ anything.
Sébastien Gobert is a French journalist who has been based in Ukraine since 2011. He is the correspondent for several publications including Libération, Le Monde Diplomatique and Radio France Internationale. He is also the co-founder of the collective of independent journalists called Daleko-Blisko.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.