Martial Law Is a Test. Will Ukraine’s Democracy Pass?

Ukraine’s parliament resisted President Petro Poroshenko’s call for an extended state of emergency—but the battle isn’t over yet.

Far-right activists hold flares during a rally in support of martial law and cutting ties with Russia in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Nov. 26. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Far-right activists hold flares during a rally in support of martial law and cutting ties with Russia in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Nov. 26. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

KIEV, Ukraine—When Russian coast guard ships fired on three Ukrainian vessels on Sunday—capturing 24 sailors, wounding at least three of them, and blocking the Kerch Strait, a lifeline for some of Ukraine’s biggest ports on the Black Sea, with a tanker—it was, on one hand, a continuation of more than four years of war between the two countries. In another sense, it was an unprecedented act: the first time that Russia has openly acknowledged and admitted firing on Ukrainian forces.

It also wasn’t the only unprecedented event going on in Ukraine. Back in Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared Monday that he would seek parliamentary approval to introduce a 60-day state of martial law in Ukraine—a declaration that worried many domestic and international observers, with some even wondering about the fate of Ukraine’s not-so-robust democratic institutions.

A full-blown assault on Ukraine’s democracy, however, isn’t in the offing. And Ukraine has its unicameral parliament, for all its flaws, to thank for it.

On Monday, Poroshenko announced that he would seek approval from Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to introduce a state of martial law in Ukraine for 60 days. It would be unprecedented, the first declared in Ukraine since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But, as Poroshenko stressed to the nation late Monday afternoon, martial law was needed to “[strengthen] Ukraine’s defense against the background of growing aggressiveness from Russia.”

It was something many seasoned Ukraine observers didn’t see coming, a bold move that left many others here and beyond musing about Poroshenko’s real motives. The presidential election is four months away and Poroshenko’s approval rating and poll numbers are in the tank—which is why some were musing whether Poroshenko wanted to postpone the election altogether, since according to Ukrainian law no election or official campaign can take place during a period of martial law.

“Poroshenko’s decision to impose martial law is a surprising action, one which is inadequate in relation to the current threat,” analysts from Centre for Eastern Studies, a think tank in Warsaw, wrote on Monday afternoon before the Rada met to vote on Poroshenko’s proposed martial law order. “Therefore, we should assume that the decision to introduce martial law is an attempt to exploit the situation and increase his public support,” they continued.

On Monday evening, after a day of fevered debates across domestic and international social media, Ukraine’s parliament finally met to discuss and vote on Poroshenko’s proposal. But it didn’t turn out quite the way he or anyone watching might have expected. After a few tense, sometimes loud hours of speeches and side chats and horse-trading, by late evening Ukraine’s parliamentarians had approved a martial law bill by a vote of 276 to 30. But it was a different one than the one Poroshenko proposed.

Martial law will be limited to 30 days instead of 60—and not affect or delay the election—and will only be in effect in 10 regions of Ukraine that border Russia, Belarus, and Transnistria, the unrecognized breakaway region of Moldova where more than 1,000 Russian troops have been stationed since 1995. “The Rada,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College London, “did its job as a check on presidential power here.”

Kateryna Kruk, a Ukrainian activist who was a part of the Euromaidan protests and 2014 revolution, told Foreign Policy that Monday’s actions might not themselves serve as evidence of a strong and vibrant democracy, but at least show that Ukraine’s politicians can talk to each other, make concessions, and come to a compromise. “I was a bit uneasy about the possible restriction of constitutional freedoms,” Kruk said. “I’m happy parliament defended this position.”

But even as the Verkhovna Rada demonstrated that it could act to balance the president’s authority, observers still wonder about Poroshenko’s real intentions—and about what martial law, even if it’s limited in scope, might still bring to the country.

As several observers pointed out Monday, Ukraine’s president and parliament never introduced martial law during the heights of the nastiest battles with Russian-led forces in 2014 and 2015. Ukrainian military expert Vyacheslav Tseluiko told the capital’s local English-language newspaper, the Kyiv Post, that martial law wouldn’t necessarily bring any new or immediate reinforcements to Ukraine’s military. “I don’t think the move was militarily necessary,” Clarkson told FP, adding that he thinks the move does, for Poroshenko, “act as a way of signaling the seriousness of the situation to the U.S. and EU, as well as showing Ukrainian resolve to Russia.”

The restrained martial law order will still have very real consequences—including the fact that Poroshenko could try to renew the order in late December. The order remains vague in wording and provides “broad latitude” for Ukraine’s authorities to limit human rights guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution, Matthew Schaaf, Freedom House’s Ukraine director, told FP.

Ukrainians and the international community, he added, need to keep a close eye on how martial law is implemented to avoid any abuses from happening—including by far-right groups who have a history of vigilantism enabled by weak law enforcement, like the Azov Battalion-affiliated National Militia that marched on the presidential administration yesterday.

But Poroshenko might not need to resort to that kind of overt pressure. As the election nears, the president has been trying to play himself up as the one person who can defend his country from a hostile former colonial ruler across the border. “Army! Language! Faith!” some of his campaign billboards across Kiev shout, referencing not only the war and the Ukrainian language, but Poroshenko’s push to finally give birth to a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church free from Russian influence. The very symbolism of martial law, whatever its scope, might be just what Poroshenko needs to shore up support to win re-election in March.

Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.