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Russia-Ukraine crisis turns on Kiev politics, irreconcilable views of Crimea

Why We Wrote This

Kiev and the West have been quick to cast blame for last weekend’s naval incident at the Kerch Strait on Russia. But a major cause may be Ukraine’s own internal politics and unstable democracy.

Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (r.) addresses servicemen during his visit to the 169th training center 'Desna' of the Ukrainian Army ground forces in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine, on Nov. 28.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s declaration of martial law earlier this week, coming after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait off Crimea, was the first such invocation in five years of conflict between the two countries. But it may have less to do with the importance of the naval incident than Ukraine’s internal politics. Ukraine has a presidential election coming up in March, and Mr. Poroshenko is trailing badly in the polls. Critics worry that he might have forced the Kerch Strait crisis – by suddenly violating Russia-imposed rules that Ukrainian ships had been following without issue for months – to gain martial law powers which he would use to reshape the political landscape ahead of the vote. But Ukraine's parliament, perhaps concerned about such a possibility, limited the scope and duration of Poroshenko’s expanded powers such that they will not likely help his campaign. “Polls show that up to 80 percent of the population are distrustful of both the president and the parliament,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center of Conflict and Political Studies in Kiev. “That will not improve because of martial law.”

As military engagements go, this past weekend’s action, in which Russian forces seized three small Ukrainian naval vessels near the disputed Kerch Strait, was a small skirmish on the edges of a simmering conflict zone.

But the incident, which left 24 Ukrainian crew members in Russian custody, three of them wounded, is also the first time in Ukraine's almost five-year-long conflict with Russia that the two countries’ servicemen fought each other directly and openly. That is the ostensible reason that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, citing Russian aggression, declared a state of martial law, which would give him sweeping powers to suspend human rights and democratic freedoms over much of the country.

The invocation of martial law underscores just how shaky Ukraine’s democratic institutions remain, despite almost five years of aspiring to European standards. More seriously, critics worry that Mr. Poroshenko might use his strengthened powers to reshape the political landscape ahead of scheduled March presidential elections that polls suggest he has little chance of winning.

Moreover, Poroshenko’s declaration – along with other immediate, outsized consequences triggered by the Kerch Strait skirmish – emphasize just how fundamental Russia’s differences with Ukraine and the West are over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. And it has intensified uncertainty – and could aggravate tensions – within Ukraine itself, a country that remains deeply divided between its more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking and West-leaning western regions and its more Russified and Moscow-leaning south and east.

Limited martial law

Despite years of a proxy war that has killed more than 10,000 people in Ukraine’s east, Poroshenko only moved now to get martial law powers. That may explain the decision of the Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, to scale back his request from 60 to just 30 days and only permitted the emergency powers to take hold in 10 of the country’s 27 regions. It will affect mostly regions that border Russia, including those where anti-Kiev sentiment, as well as pro-Russian sympathies, endure.

“Poroshenko will have vast powers as commander-in-chief to cancel freedom of speech [and] assembly, and to curtail the media on these territories. How he will use them is another issue, and it’s possible that nothing will happen,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center of Conflict and Political Studies in Kiev. “But it’s unlikely to benefit him in the popular mind. Nobody thinks martial law is a good idea. Polls show that up to 80 percent of the population are distrustful of both the president and the parliament. That will not improve because of martial law.”

Indeed, in some of the Russia-adjacent regions where the new measures will be implemented, there is a risk of antagonizing local populations who voted overwhelmingly for pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, and have never fully accepted the authority of the new Kiev government.

“What happens when people in those regions that voted for Yanukovych see military patrols with armored vehicles and dogs out in their streets again?” says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center of European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. “Their level of hatred toward central authorities will only grow. What is the good of this?”

Irreconcilable differences?

At the nub of the current crisis is fundamentally irreconcilable differences between Russia and the West over the status of Crimea.

Russia regards the annexation of the mostly Russian-populated territory as a settled matter, and cites historical reasons plus the clear support of most of the local population as sufficient justification. Ukraine and the West, citing international law and a 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine, refuse to accept Crimea’s absorption into Russia, and say the surrounding waters – including the narrow Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Azov Sea – must be jointly shared between Russia and Ukraine. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date of the Russia-Ukraine treaty on the Kerch Strait.]

Russia, which has constructed a bridge to link Crimea with the Russian mainland, insists that shipping to and from two major Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea, Mariupol and Berdiansk, must queue to pass through the narrow strait, accept a Russian pilot, and submit to inspection. For the past four years, Ukrainian shipping has been following those rules – no small matter, since 25 percent of Ukraine's steel exports and 10 percent of grain exports pass through those waters. The Russians claim the three Ukrainian naval boats that were detained following a brief battle had declined to accept the Russian rules of transit, though Ukrainian warships have previously done so.

Ukraine, backed by the West and international law, argue that whether they followed Russian rules or not is irrelevant; those vessels had every right to access the Kerch Strait and the Russian attack on them was an unacceptable act of international piracy.

The two scripts can likely never be reconciled.

“Russia’s agreement with Ukraine on the joint use of the Kerch Strait was signed ... when one shore belonged to Ukraine, the other to Russia,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. “Now there is a legal vacuum, and this Ukrainian provocation took place in waters that Russia now considers its own. Ukraine believes it belongs to them, though they have previously accepted the real state of things and abided by the terms of Russian control over the strait.”

An ongoing standoff

Without an internationally backed settlement of the basic issue, Crimea, incidents like the current Kerch crisis will continue to happen, experts say.

Though it seems unlikely that the West will help Ukraine to militarily regain Crimea, it will continue to provide strong political and diplomatic support – including perhaps yet another barrage of anti-Russia sanctions – says Oleksiy Melnyk, an expert with the Razumkov Centre in Kiev.

“From the beginning of this Russian hybrid attack on us, we have maintained that this is not an internal struggle in Ukraine, nor is it a bilateral one between Russia and Ukraine. It is directly part of a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West,” he says. “The most important thing for us is the political support of the West for our position, and we have seen that clearly in recent days. The civilized world is with us.”

For its part, the Kremlin also appears unlikely to seek a military solution, and seems to believe that time and basic economic dynamics are on its side in the battle for Ukraine’s soul.

What average Ukrainians think after almost five years of agonizing standoff may be harder to pin down.

“As news of this new crisis comes out, the popular mood is mostly one of panic,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Everyone remembers five years of war and hardship, and probably the thought in many peoples’ minds was to rush out and stock up on matches and salt. Here we go again.”

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