Ukraine to impose martial law after Russia seizes ships and sailors

US condemns Moscow’s ‘outrageous violation’ as Black Sea tensions soar

Much of Ukraine will introduce martial law after Russia fired on and seized three of its naval ships in the Black Sea, prompting warnings of a dangerous escalation in their four-year conflict and strong western condemnation of Moscow.

Ukraine's parliament on Monday approved the decree issued by President Petro Poroshenko, who said his nation must react to a "new phase of aggression" and face the "extremely serious threat of a land-based operation" by Russian forces.

Mr Poroshenko said martial law would apply to 10 “high-risk” border regions, starting on Wednesday and lasting for just 30 days, so as not to effect presidential elections due in March and to ease concern that he might try to postpone the vote. He insisted that the special measures would “allow us, in the event of invasion, to react and mobilise all resources as quickly as possible” and would not bring “restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens or the introduction of censorship”.

However, critics still saw politics behind Mr Poroshenko’s decision to take this step now, four years after Russia annexed Crimea and launched an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 10,300 lives.


Moscow did not respond to calls from Ukraine and its allies to free the three ships and 23 sailors Russian forces captured on Sunday near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea with the smaller Sea of Azov off the coast of Crimea.

Naval ships

The two countries blamed each other for the incident, which involved a Russian naval ship ramming a Ukrainian vessel before Russian ships pursued the Ukrainian boats, shot at them and forced them to stop, injuring six Ukrainian sailors in the process. The boats were then tugged to the Crimean port of Kerch.

Russia said Ukraine’s ships illegally entered its territorial waters, but Kiev accused Moscow of flagrant aggression and released what it called intercepted radio messages in which Russian officers discuss how best to attack and disable the Ukrainian boats.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the issue and Nato ambassadors discussed it with Ukraine's envoy in Brussels, after the alliance's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg spoke by telephone to Mr Poroshenko.

Nato expressed “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law”.

European Council president Donald Tusk also spoke to Mr Poroshenko on Monday. Afterwards he said, "I condemn Russian use of force in the Azov Sea. Russian authorities must return Ukrainian sailors, vessels and refrain from further provocations . . . Europe will stay united in support of Ukraine."

The US condemned Russia's "outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory", while France said "nothing appears to justify the use of force by Russia" and Germany called Moscow's de facto blockade of the Sea of Azov "unacceptable".

Border ‘violation’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by accusing Ukrainian boats of an "intrusion" and said that Russian ships opening fire on them "was not an attack but action required to prevent the violation of Russia's state border".

Moscow’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, warned that “the policy pursued by Kiev in co-ordination with the US and EU to provoke conflict with Russia in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea is fraught with serious consequences”.

Tension in the Sea of Azov has soared this year, after Russia completed a bridge over the Kerch Strait to connect it to occupied Crimea and its border guards began searching scores of civilian ships heading to and from Ukrainian ports.

Under a 2003 treaty signed by Ukraine and Russia, the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait are shared territorial waters that both states can use freely for commercial shipping, while notifying each other about the movement of naval vessels.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe