Martial Law Won’t Help Ukraine's President

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Imposing martial law after a naval clash with Russia in the Kerch Strait looked like a political masterstroke for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, coming ahead of an election that polls suggest he will lose. But by the time parliament had finished with his decree, it was clear he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. 

The president's initial plan was to declare martial law throughout Ukraine for 60 days. With an election scheduled for March 31, this threatened to throw into disarray the campaigns of every candidate except Poroshenko himself. As commander-in-chief, he would be at the center of attention, rallying the nation against the invasion threat.

“Intelligence data speak of an extremely serious threat,” Poroshenko declared in a televised address on Monday, brandishing a pile of paper, which, he said, was an intelligence report detailing the Russian forces massed close to the border. At a session of the United Nations Security Council called at Ukraine’s request late on Monday, the country’s representative, Volodymyr Yelchenko, claimed the Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk faced invasion.

Poroshenko realized early on, however, that he lacked the votes in parliament to impose 60 days of direct military control. So in his address, he said he would agree to 30 days to allow for the election campaign. That was a major concession. It’s unclear how Ukraine can strengthen its defenses against a Russian attack by handing Poroshenko emergency powers for a month. After that, voters will likely ask themselves what the president had hoped to achieve.

“Martial law cannot make us stronger against Russia,” wrote Serhiy Fursa, an analyst with Dragon Capital, Ukraine’s top investment bank. “It’s not helping Ukraine. It’s just helping people in power to keep their power.”

But the legislators weren’t done with Poroshenko yet.

Rival political parties - former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi’s Self-Help and populist Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party – demanded further concessions. They wanted immediate confirmation, rather than just a promise, that the election will go ahead on March 31. They sought to limit martial law to a number of regions rather the whole country, and they objected to any plans to limit Ukrainians’ constitutional freedoms. Their fear wasn’t just that campaigning would be limited, but that Poroshenko would get near-dictatorial powers.

As the legislators hurled insults at each other and even had a shoving match, Poroshenko left in a huff, and then continued negotiating from his office. He returned to applause after accepting a deal that limited martial law to 10 of Ukraine’s 27 regions – those on the Black Sea and those directly bordering Russia and the unrecognized statelet of Transnistria, where Russian troops are stationed. Poroshenko promised he would only move to suspend the basic freedoms if Russia invades. Parliament also voted to confirm the election date. 

With the decree curtailed, there’s little political benefit left for Poroshenko. The election campaign will have long enough to run after martial law is lifted to erase any advantage he gains by the end of December. Still, the president is playing the situation for all it’s worth. He said in the debate that he had thwarted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to provoke Ukraine so it would set off a war like the one Georgia fought against Russia in 2008 (and lost).

Putin, however, won’t launch an all-out attack, just as he didn’t in 2014 or 2015, when his army would have easily overrun Ukraine's weak military. The Kremlin would gain little by invading and, besides, the election provides a much better opportunity for Putin to go on destabilizing and weakening his neighbor. If Poroshenko hoped for a robust international response, he got only a belated and muted reaction from the Trump administration.

Poroshenko has wasted his opportunity. He would have done better to focus on negotiating the release of the 23 (or 18, depending on the source) sailors captured by Russian forces during Sunday’s incident and taken to Russian-occupied Crimea. The sailors, some of them wounded, are being questioned by Russian counterintelligence, which apparently is trying to force them to admit they had intruded on Russia’s territorial waters.

During the pointless martial law debate, the sailors’ fate receded into the background, but it’s really the biggest issue in the aftermath of the incident. Ukraine doesn’t want to start a naval confrontation, which means the illegal Russian domination of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait won’t end soon.

Poroshenko’s options ahead of the election look increasingly limited. The vote will be a test of Ukraine’s nascent but lively democracy: Ukrainians have four months, including the 30 days of half-baked martial law, to pick a more competent leader as intent as Poroshenko on securing Ukraine's clean break with Russia.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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