Lessons of war
Although Ukrainians were being killed almost daily in Russia’s war, the land battle had settled into a stalemated conflict for quite some time. The Russians have stayed put, unable or uninterested in taking new territory in the Donbas. Ukraine learned its lessons when it disastrously went on the offensive, as the 2014 debacle in Ilovaisk and the 2015 one in Debaltseve showed. Since then, the nation has had to settle mostly for playing defense.
All of that changed on Nov. 25 when Russia’s coast guard committed an act of war openly and brazenly by attacking three smaller Ukrainian naval vessels in the international waters of the Black Sea. Russia took 24 more prisoners, adding to the 70 Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars hold. It appears to be part of a Kremlin drive to take over the Azov Sea.
Some were quick to see political motives. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were both accused of spoiling for a fight to bolster their sagging popularities at home. Poroshenko’s political survival, in particular, is imperiled as he lags behind rivals in opinion polls ahead of the March 31 presidential election.
Why didn’t he call for martial law earlier, from the start of Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula in 2014? Why did he call for it now, for the first time in Ukraine’s independent history? Martial law conjures up images of a military takeover of government institutions, travel restrictions, media censorship, suspension of civil rights, full-scale mobilization and other draconian steps — as it has been applied in other nations.
But what Poroshenko got is closer to an emergency alert. He wanted 60 days. Parliament gave him 30 days. He wanted it to be applied nationwide. Parliament gave him 10 border oblasts. For all of its faults, the Verkhovna Rada wisely checked his powers.
What it amounts to is an unsatisfying half-measure that may or may not give Poroshenko a political boost. It also may have been his only option — to look like he was doing something bold when his options are, in reality, limited. But the declaration is likely to bring longer-term costs to the nation’s image. Even some of Poroshenko’s supporters were dismayed about the prospect of attracting foreign direct investment under such conditions.
The attack and the declaration shocked Ukrainians and those in the world who paid attention. It brought back a strong sense of deja vu from the revolutionary events of 2014. Many people in the nation got worried messages from abroad.
In reality, however, nothing has changed: the banks are working the same, travel is unrestricted and cafes are filled with people. The streets are no more or less dangerous than before. Poroshenko even said martial law measures will only be taken in case of another attack by Russia.
Importantly, Ukraine’s leaders have disappointed by not clearly explaining how “martial law-light” will make defenses stronger. Rather than making Ukrainians feel safer, Poroshenko confused them.
Other questions arise. While Poroshenko acted well within Ukraine’s legal rights to move its navy between the Black and Azov seas, he more than anybody else knows what happened the other times during this bloody war that he disastrously tried to flex Ukraine's military muscles and go on the offensive. Maybe he thought that, since two navy vessels had entered the Azov Sea safely in September, Russia would let more pass again without harm. In this gamble, Poroshenko lost to a much stronger adversary and exposed what every patriot knows but didn’t want to say too loudly: Ukraine, a nation with two seas, doesn’t have much of a navy and won’t get one soon.
However, if the declaration of martial law gets Ukrainians and the free world to take more decisive actions against Russia, then it will be worth it. If it serves as a reminder that the country is at war and should build defenses more actively, then great. We are hawks on sanctions. We believe that Russian should faced the toughest possible sanctions — including a ban from international organizations and the SWIFT bank transfer system.
But if the free world wants a more moderate course, abandoning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be a start. So would more millitary help, including ships, and maritime international observers. There’s a wide range of tougher sanctions that many thoughtful people proposed against Russia this week. The time is long past to adopt some of them.