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Why did Ukraine impose martial law?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reacts as he speaks to lawmakers Monday during an extraordinary session of parliament in Kiev. (Stepan Franko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Monday, the Ukrainian government imposed martial law in 10 of its 25 provinces — the first time the country’s government took this step since Ukraine became independent in 1991. The declaration of martial law was in response to Russia’s attack on, and subsequent seizure of, three Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to cross through the narrow Kerch Strait between the Russian mainland and the contested Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine’s military conflict with Russia and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has been going on for nearly five years. This conflict has cost more than 10,000 lives and has seen Ukraine lose control over Crimea and parts of the Donbass region. But why introduce martial law now? The reason may have just as much to do with Ukrainian electoral politics as it does with national security.

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Is this simply a response to external threats?

Security concerns are certainly a plausible motivation. Ukraine faces a significant external threat from Russia. According to the presidential decree endorsed by Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, martial law creates the “legal conditions for [the] suppression of armed aggression of the Russian Federation and to ensure national security.”

There is widespread consensus within Ukraine and among its allies that the government needs to bolster its military capacity to better confront Russian aggression. Freedom of navigation through the Kerch Strait, linking Ukrainian port cities to the Black Sea and beyond, is a vital national interest.

The European Union and NATO have issued statements condemning Russia’s actions, which appear to be in violation of a 2003 bilateral treaty governing traffic through the strait.

Support within Ukraine for President Petro Poroshenko’s martial law proposal boiled down to the feeling that he needed to take action. Key parts of the presidential decree on the introduction of martial law relate directly to military preparedness — such as provisions to ensure that military forces are fully supplied.

Or is this a political solution to an electoral problem?

Poroshenko’s announcement of his intention to declare martial law prompted many Ukrainian observers to suspect that his motivations are more political than military. On the one hand, Poroshenko may simply want to appear a leader in full command of the situation, taking decisive action in the face of Russian aggression. However, the martial law decree included provisions to restrict constitutional guarantees of assembly and free speech that would seem to do little to bolster military preparedness.

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It’s easier to understand such measures as part of an effort to manipulate the political process to stay in power. Poroshenko is extremely unpopular — and his chances in a free and fair election appear slim. Recent polls suggest that fewer than 12 percent of likely voters would support him.

Given how deeply power and profit are intertwined in Ukraine, the current government would have a lot to lose from the loss of the presidency — particularly to Poroshenko’s longtime rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who currently leads in the polls.

Poroshenko initially proposed a 60-day period of martial law throughout Ukraine. That would affect election procedures, as presidential election campaigning begins Dec. 31 — but according to Ukrainian law, the electoral process is prohibited under martial law.

The possible postponement of the presidential elections prompted widespread opposition within the Ukrainian elite — including sharp criticism in an open statement by three former Ukrainian presidents. Poroshenko ultimately compromised, limiting martial law to 10 border provinces and 30 days so that the timing of the election would not be affected — barring a further decision to extend martial law.

Even a limited martial law declaration could affect the elections

Approximately 40 percent of Ukraine’s population resides in the 10 provinces now under martial law. These are the same provinces — predominantly in the Russian-speaking south and east of the country — where opposition to Poroshenko is the strongest. Recent polls suggest that his support in this part of Ukraine is about half of what it is in western and central Ukraine.

Deputies from southeast Ukraine were the main source of parliamentary opposition to martial law during the discussion in parliament. Interestingly, a number of individual southeastern deputies in parties that supported martial law chose not to vote on the motion. The president’s new ability to restrict public expression and organization may create opportunities for Poroshenko to manipulate the political field in the run-up to the start of the campaign.

Poroshenko has promised to restrict political rights only in the event of a Russian land invasion. But Russian ground forces already occupy parts of Ukraine, so any uptick in the fighting could serve as a pretext for a more expansive application of martial law. There is also the very real possibility that Poroshenko will attempt to extend martial law. Once opened, martial law and other forms of extraordinary rule and dictatorship can be difficult doors to close — political scientists see martial law as one of the ways that democracies die.

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Ukrainian authorities have used the war to justify the suppression of a number of Ukrainian media sources tied to pro-Russian oligarchs that have been highly critical of the government. In March 2017, Ukraine’s National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council decided not to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Vesti in part because of “rude and derogatory remarks addressed to the heroes of the Revolution of Dignity” — what Ukrainians call the 2014 events leading up to the flight of former president Yiktor Yanukovich from the country.

In early 2018, dozens of law enforcement agencies raided the Vesti headquarters, seizing equipment and destroying property. Similarly, in October the Rada passed a resolution supporting sanctions against companies linked to the 112 and NewsOne television stations, which have been highly critical of the government.

Given that the government has imposed martial law in those parts of Ukraine where Russian-language media is most popular, any Russian-language opposition media would seem to be especially vulnerable in the upcoming months. More generally, the fact that martial law is being imposed disproportionately on Russian-speaking regions is likely to further polarize an already deeply divided Ukraine.

Rather than shoring up Ukraine’s territorial integrity, martial law could have the paradoxical effect of further alienating the citizens in Ukraine’s sensitive border regions. If that were the case, martial law could end up undermining national security against Russian aggression by potentially alienating those in the south and east that are most vulnerable to Russian expansion.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify that there has been no indication that Ukraine’s parliamentary elections might be postponed.

Keith Darden is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, Washington, D.C. 

Lucan Ahmad Way is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).