Amid heightened tensions between neighbouring Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine’s parliament voted on Monday night to impose martial law following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships over the weekend. Following what the U.S. referred to as “unlawful conduct,” the United Nations called an emergency session just before Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, Verkhovna Rada, approved the imposition of martial law for 30 days.
The seizures took place in the Sea of Azov, where Russia claims the armoured vessels and tugboat entered Russian waters illegally. Russia also claimed that Ukraine posed a threat by being in the Sea of Azov with Western support. Ukraine maintains it did nothing wrong, and has accused Russia of military aggression in the matter. The countries continue to blame each other, furthering the disputes that have followed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The conflict has created fear that the two former allies will rekindle the conflict that has recently simmered down. President Petro Poroshenko initiated the imposition of the law by signing the decree that was then approved by Verkhovna Rada after a tense five hour debate. As of Tuesday, his top priority was the return of the three ships and the 23 sailors onboard.
The West immediately condemned the actions of Russia. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference, “…there is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel, so we call on Russia to release immediately the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized yesterday.” U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called the action an “outrageous violation” of international law and called for the act to be unilaterally condemned. Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Volodymyr Yelchenko, called Russia’s claim that Ukrainian ships crossed Russia’s borders an “outright lie” and voiced his concern that the heightened tensions “constitute a clear threat to international peace and security.”
The public response throughout Ukraine mostly consists of anger, rooted in concerns over the implications of the decision in the upcoming elections. “[Poroshenko] has to do something pretty special to regain popularity in these elections, the cynics and members of his own coalition are suspicious of his motivations in calling for martial law,” said Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons. Ukrainians fear that the imposition of martial law is a step towards a declaration of war against Russia, which Poroshenko firmly denies. “Martial law doesn’t mean declaring a war,” he said. “It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine’s defence in the light of a growing aggression from Russia.”
The retention of the rights of Ukrainian citizens under martial law is a test of Ukraine’s democracy, with concerns that they will be diminished. However, Poroshenko has pledged to respect these rights moving forward. Despite this, there were warnings of the possibility of illegal searches, invasion of privacy, and violations of free speech as a result of the law. “This means they will be breaking into the houses of Ukrainians and not those of the aggressor nation. They will be prying into personal mail, family affairs… In fact, everything that is written here is a destruction of the lives of Ukrainians,” said former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“As soon as a Russian soldier crosses a border, I won’t waste a second to ensure the defence of Ukrainian territory,” Poroshenko told lawmakers.
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