Les­sons of war

Kyiv Post - - Opinion -

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.

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