Ukraine Introduces Martial Law Citing Threat of Russian Invasion

November 27, 2018 Updated: November 27, 2018

WARSAW—Ukraine has imposed martial law for 30 days in parts of the country most vulnerable to an attack from Russia after President Petro Poroshenko warned of the “extremely serious” threat of a land invasion.

Poroshenko said on Nov. 26 that martial law was necessary to bolster Ukraine’s defenses after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships and took their crew prisoner over the weekend.

The Ukrainian Parliament approved the introduction of martial law after Poroshenko reassured some skeptical lawmakers that it would not be used to curb civil liberties or delay elections scheduled for next year.

It came at the end of a day when Ukraine and Russia traded accusations about Sunday’s standoff and Kiev’s allies weighed in to condemn Moscow’s behavior.

Ukrainian president speaks in Parliament
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a parliament session in Kyiv to review his proposal to introduce martial law for 60 days after Russia seized Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea, on Nov. 26, 2018. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

International Response

U.S. President Donald Trump said he was working with European leaders on the situation.

“We do not like what’s happening either way and, hopefully, it will get straightened out,” Trump said, according to ABC news.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian vessels “a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law” and called for restraint from both countries.

“The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action. We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Head of Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Hrytsak (R) and Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces, Viktor Muzhenk
Head of Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Hrytsak (R) and Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, Viktor Muzhenko in Kiev on Nov. 26, 2018. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo)

With relations still raw after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the crisis risked pushing the two countries into open conflict.

“Russia has been waging a hybrid war against our country for a fifth year. But with an attack on Ukrainian military boats it moved to a new stage of aggression,” Poroshenko said.

‘All Hell Broke Loose’

Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., told the officials at an emergency meeting of the Security Council that Russia orchestrated the incident. Yelchenko claims to have tapes of radio traffic that would prove his claim.

Yelchenko said “all hell broke loose” when border patrol boats belonging to Russia’s FSB security service seized two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat after opening fire on them and wounding three sailors on Nov. 25.

The skirmish occurred in the strategically significant Kerch Strait, where a Kremlin-built bridge connects Russia to the southeastern portion of Ukraine that’s occupied by Russia-backed forces.

Russia said the Ukrainian ships illegally crossed into Russian waters and called the crisis a “planned provocation.”

Ukraine contends that its vessels followed international maritime rules.

an annotated map graphic showing the location of the clash between Russia and Ukraine

A video filmed from aboard a Russian vessel shows Russians chasing the Ukrainian tugboat and ramming the vessel.

A photograph of the damaged Ukrainian vessel was published Nov. 26 on a military news website, showing the damage allegedly from a Russian 30mm naval cannon projectile.

Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, as saying on Nov. 26 that 24 Ukrainian sailors were being detained. Three of the sailors were wounded but were not in serious condition.

The FSB said the Ukrainian ships had ignored warning shots, forcing Russian vessels to open fire for real, after they illegally entered Russian territorial waters.

Forced Confessions?

Russian FSB officials published footage of the sailors on Nov. 26 showing fragments of their interrogation.

In the recordings, the sailors appear to admit to breaching Russian territorial waters.

“En route to Mariupol via the Kerch Strait, we entered Russian territorial waters,” one of the sailors can be heard in the video. “Border patrol officials of the Russian Federation warned us that we were in violation of Russian law. The ordered us multiple times to leave Russian territorial waters.”

Another sailor said that the actions of the Ukrainian crew were “provocative.”

Ukrainian media has denounced the confessions, saying they were most probably coerced.

“As expected, following moral, psychological, and most likely physical pressure against the Ukrainian soldiers, the Russian FSB published a recording of their ‘interrogation'” wrote Polish news service Gazeta, citing a Ukrainian military affairs news service.

Reuters contributed to this report.