Ukraine Moves Toward Martial Law As Russia Refuses To Free Sailors And Ships Seized In Skirmish (Updated)

A day after a serious skirmish between Ukranian and Russian forces in the Kerch Strait, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea, left multiple Ukranian boats and their crews, including injured sailors, detained in Russian-controlled Crimea, both countries are on high alert as the international community takes stock of the situation. Ukraine is on the verge of Martial Law while American intelligence gathering aircraft and drones have been flying missions in the region and pictures have emerged showing the Ukranian boats Russia seized during the incident sitting in the Russian-controlled port of Kerch.

On Nov. 26, 2018, Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko signed a Martial Law decree, which would go into effect on Nov. 28, 2018. At the time of writing, Ukraine’s legislators in the country’s parliament, the Rada, were still debating whether to formally sanction the measure. Poroshenko had also gone on national television to make a public appeal, claiming, without providing evidence to the public, that his intelligence services had warned him that Russia was preparing a ground offensive against the country. Russia and Ukraine both accuse the other of provoking the incident in the Kerch Strait.

If the Rada signs off on the Martial Law measure, Ukraine’s Border Guards will be empowered to increase their presence along the border with Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. The country’s intelligence agency, known by the acronym SBU, will step up counter-intelligence efforts, including those focused on disrupting hostile information operations and cyber attacks, both of which Russia has used to effect against Ukraine in the past. The Ukranian Ministry of the Interior would also deploy additional personnel to provide physical security at critical sites.

Under Ukranian Law, a declaration of Martial Law could also give state security forces broad sweeping authority to restrict freedom of movement and assembly, implement curfews, and censor media outlets. So far, though, there are no clear indications that Poroshenko plans to implement any of those provisions. However, the 12th provision of his official decree was sealed and not published publicly.

Poroshenko had originally called for 60 days of Martial Law, but has reportedly agreed to limit this to 30 days in exchange for parliamentary approval. With that truncated schedule, Ukraine would, barring an extension of the plan, return to normal law and order by the end of 2018.

In the meantime, commercial transit through the Kerch Strait has resumed. Russia, however, is at present refusing to return the Ukranian boats and their crews. Photos have appeared online showing Ukraine’s two patrol boats, which the press has often referred to as “artillery boats,” along with the tug that was accompanying them, in Kerch Port. 

Russia’s top human rights official, Tatyana Moskalkova, said that Russian forces had detained a total of 24 Ukranian sailors and that three were injured and recovering in hospital. The location or locations where the Kremlin was holding the other individuals and under what conditions remained unclear.

At present, neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has issued a formal statement regarding the skirmish. Other European countries, including NATO allies Canada, Poland, and the United Kingdom, have all issued strong rebukes toward Russia, blaming it for the altercation.

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, had already Tweeted out a less official condemnation of Russian actions. “Russia seizes ships and crew and then accuses Ukraine of provocation???” he wrote as the skirmish was unfolding.

Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the annual G20 meeting, which will begin on Nov. 30, 2018, in Argentina. Russian state media has already accused the unspecified entities within the U.S. and Ukranian government, without evidence, of trying to scuttle those talks by deliberately touching off the maritime brawl in the Kerch Strait. 

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley offered the first real official condemnation of Russia’s actions, which she described as those of an “outlaw,” during an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Nov. 26, 2018. Russia had initially sought to set the agenda framed around what Deputy Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy described as a violation of Russia’s borders as part of a broader international conspiracy against the Kremlin. He offered no evidence to substantiate those claims.

“This is no way for a law-abiding civilized nation to act. Impeding Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait is a violation under international law,” Haley said later. “It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept.”

“We have seen this game before. Russia wants to consolidate its illegal annexation of Crimea and annex the Sea of Azov,” U.K. Ambassador to the U.N. said during the meeting. “Russia seems to hope that the international community will simply acquiesce and accept this new reality. We will not”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also extended the alliance’s full support to Ukraine, which is not a member of the bloc, on Nov. 26, 2018. “We are constantly assessing what more we can do,” he said.

Per CNN‘s Barbara Starr, U.S. officials say that the U.S. Air Force and Navy will be conducting increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in and around the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and the Crimean Peninsula to gather more information about the situation. On Nov. 26, 2018, plane spotters using online flight tracking software had already seen an Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft flying in the Black Sea and an RQ-4B Global Hawk drone performing a mission over Ukraine proper. 

Since Russia illegally seized Crimea in 2014 and began supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the United States has been flying these types of missions regularly to monitor Russian forces. Navy EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft are also routine contributors to that effort. So far, there have not been any reports of Russian aircraft aggressively intercepting American planes in the Black Sea, but this is also a regular occurrence. In February 2018, the Kremlin declared it would take more assertive actions in response to any aircraft flying near Crimea or its territory along the Black Sea.

One piece of intelligence American aircraft may be able to recover is radio and other communications that could help explain just how premeditated Russia’s attempt to blockade the Kerch Strait actually was. Audio has already appeared online reportedly between Russian security forces on board the vessels that intercepted the Ukranian naval convoy, which, if confirmed, seems to indicate that at least the members of the Russian Coast Guard during the incident were actively seeking to damage or destroy the small boats rather than simply stop them. 

It remains unclear as to why Russia decided now as an opportune time to force the issue of the Sea of Azov, which has been brewing for months now, in such a provocative manner. Limiting Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov would cut off a vital trade route and help prevent the Ukrainians from rapidly deploying reinforcements during a flare-up in fighting in the country’s restive eastern Donbass region.

It is possible that the Kremlin hoped to exploit President Poroshenko’s low approval ratings heading into Ukranian elections presently set to occur in March 2019 and hope to goad him into cutting a deal favorable to Russia’s demands. Russia has already accused Poroshenko of creating the tensions in the first place to invoke Martial Law and improve his political standing. Poroshenko insists that the Martial Law plan will not result in the postponement of the 2019 polls.

France, Germany, and the United States all experiencing various levels of political upheaval and the primary focus in the Europe Union at the moment is the United Kingdom’s plans to leave the bloc. As such, the Russians may have simply felt it was a good moment to act when the international community was on a weaker footing overall.

Whatever the reason, the skirmish is the most serious incident to occur between Russia and Ukraine directly in years and continues to hold the possibility of setting of a larger and more dangerous series of events. Hopefully, the international community can find common ground to de-escalate the situation and continue pushing for a final, negotiated settlement of the conflict in Ukraine.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

Update: 11:40am PST—

Ukraine’s parliament has formally voted to approval Martial Law for 30 days, beginning on Nov. 28, 2018. Of the 450 legislators, 276 voted for the measure, but only 30 voted against it.

Update: 12:10pm PST—

Russia’s Federal Security Service, better known by the acronym FSB, the country’s primary internal security agency, has issued an official timeline of events in the Kerch Strait, a machine translation of which is available here. What is particularly interesting is that the transcript appears to acknowledge that the Ukranian ships were operating in accordance with international law and a 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia over the use of the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. 

Russia’s primary contention appears to be that the ships did not properly file a notice that they would transit the Strait in advance with local authorities, a measure the Russians put into place in 2015, after illegally seizing Crimea. The Ukrainians contended that they had the right to freedom of navigation through the area under the 2003 agreement and ignored demands from Russian forces to stop.

Update: 1:00pm PST—

President Trump has offered his first comments on the situation in Ukraine while speaking to reporters outside of the White House. “We don’t like what’s happening either way,” he said, without specifically placing blame on either Russia or Ukraine. “We don’t like what’s happening.”

Update: 1:50pm PST—

The U.S. State Department has now issued its own statement on the skirmish in the Kerch Strait, which you can read in full below.

Update: 6:00pm PST—

The FSB has released a video where one of the captured Ukranian sailors “confesses” that the incident was a provocation on their part. The legitimacy of such a confession is, at the very least, highly suspect.

Update: 11/27/2018 —

A Russian court in occupied Crimea has reportedly remanded two of the captured Ukranian sailors to custody for two months, ostensibly for violating Russia’s borders. Another dozen individuals are awaiting hearings, with the remaining personnel to appear before the court on Nov. 28, 2018. This is almost certain to inflame tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as well as members of the international community, many of which have called for the immediate release of the Ukrainians.

Contact the author: