Monday 21 January 2019

Ukraine imposes martial law amid 'growing aggression with Russia'

Radical party leader Oleh Lyashko (C) attends a parliament session to review a proposal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to introduce martial law for 60 days
REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Radical party leader Oleh Lyashko (C) attends a parliament session to review a proposal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to introduce martial law for 60 days REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman speaks during a parliament session to review a proposal by President Petro Poroshenko to introduce martial law REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shakes hands with lawmakers after a vote on his proposal to introduce martial law REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Lawmakers vote during a parliament session to review a proposal to introduce martial law REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Nataliya Vasilyeva and Efrem Lukatsky

Ukraine's parliament has voted to impose martial law to fight what its president called "growing aggression" from Moscow after a naval confrontation off the disputed Crimean peninsula.

The weekend incident saw Russia fire on and seize three Ukrainian vessels amid renewed tensions between the neighbours.

Western leaders and diplomats urged both sides to de-escalate the conflict, and the US blamed Russia for what it called "unlawful conduct" over Sunday's incident in the Black Sea.

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other in the dispute that ratcheted up tensions that have simmered since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and threw its weight behind separatists in eastern Ukraine with clandestine support, including troops and weapons.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked legislators in Kiev to institute martial law, something the country has not done even during the worst of the fighting in the east that killed about 10,000 people.

After a five-hour debate, parliament overwhelmingly approved his proposal, voting to impose martial law for 30 days in 10 of Ukraine's 27 regions - those bordering Russia, Belarus and Moldova's pro-Moscow breakaway republic of Trans-Dniester.

The locations were identified as potentially in the front line of any Russian attack. The capital Kiev is not under martial law.

Mr Poroshenko said it was necessary because of intelligence about "a highly serious threat of a ground operation against Ukraine".

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shakes hands with lawmakers after a vote on his proposal to introduce martial law
REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shakes hands with lawmakers after a vote on his proposal to introduce martial law REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

"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."

Ukraine's Defence Ministry had announced earlier in the day that its troops were on full combat alert.

The approved measures included a partial mobilisation and strengthening the country's air defences. It also contained vaguely worded steps such as "strengthening" anti-terrorism measures and "information security" that could curtail certain rights and freedoms.

Mr Poroshenko's critics reacted to his call for martial law with suspicion, wondering why Sunday's incident merited such a response. His approval ratings have been plunging, and there were concerns that he would postpone a presidential election scheduled for March.

Just before parliament met to vote, he sought to allay those fears by releasing a statement revising his original martial law proposal from 60 days to 30, to "do away with the pretexts for political speculation".

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Mr Poroshenko assured him martial law would not have a negative impact on the election.

Mr Poroshenko's call also outraged far-right groups in Ukraine that have advocated severing diplomatic ties with Russia. Hundreds of protesters from the National Corps party waved flares in the snowy streets of Kiev outside parliament and accused the president of using martial law to his own ends.

But he insisted it was necessary because what happened in the Kerch Strait between Crimea and the Russian mainland "was no accident", adding that "this was not the culmination of it yet".

Russian coastguard ships fired on the Ukrainian navy vessels near the strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov, injuring six Ukrainian seamen and eventually seizing the vessels and their crews.

It was the first open military confrontation between the two neighbours since the annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov in line with international maritime rules, while Russia said they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the narrow strait that is spanned by a 11.8-mile bridge that Russia completed this year.

While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Moscow has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation.

Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said the dispute was not an accident and Russia had engaged in "deliberately planned hostilities".

His Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov blamed Kiev for what he described as a "provocation", adding: "Ukraine had undoubtedly hoped to get additional benefits from the situation, expecting the US and Europe to blindly take the provocateurs' side."

At a UN Security Council meeting, US ambassador Nikki Haley urged Moscow to "immediately cease its unlawful conduct" in the Black Sea.

Press Association

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