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Yevhen Mahda: Martial Law is to remind the Ukrainian society Russian aggression and war is still ongoing

An interview with Yevhen Mahda, a Ukrainian political analyst and the Executive Director of the Institute of World Policy, a think-tank based in Kyiv. Interviewer: Tomasz Lachowski

December 13, 2018 - Tomasz Lachowski Yevhen Magda - InterviewsUkraine elections 2019

Meeting with President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko 29.11.2018 Photo: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine (cc) wikimedia.org

Tomasz Lachowski: We talk few days after Martial Law was introduced in 10 oblasts in Ukraine in the aftermath of the recent example of aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in the Azov Sea. Nevertheless, the question remains why Martial Law was enacted just in the last days of November 2018, having in mind that the Kremlin’s aggression commenced already in 2014?

Yevhen Mahda: On 25th November we observed the first official attack of the Russian troops on the three ships of the Ukrainian Navy, already travelling back from the port of Mariupol to Odessa. For the first time there was neither ‘green little men’, ‘separatists’, nor the Kremlin’s ‘explanations’: “that we were not there”. Moreover, according to Russian words, an ‘incident’ took place on the territorial waters of Crimea, thus of the Russian Federation, however none of the members of the international community has recognised it. According to international law, those waters were either solely Ukrainian, or international and Ukrainian ships had a right to be there. Therefore, an introduction of a Martial Law was aimed at reminding the Ukrainian nation that a war is still ongoing (in other words, to mobilise the society, although not in a military sense), and the last – fully open – attack of the Russian troops served just as a confirmation of this.

What does a Martial Law actually mean for Ukraine?

We have to remember that in the full history of the Ukrainian state, it is the very first time that a Martial Law is being introduced. We have no experience in dealing with such an issue and many common Ukrainians are a bit afraid of its consequences. Nonetheless, the final decision of President Petro Poroshenko to go for some compromise on the matter of the length on the Martial Law (that was eventually enacted for a period of 30 days) and its territorial scope (10 oblasts neighboring either with Russia, Black / Azov Seas, or pro-Russian para-state of Transnistria) has calmed down a political situation. What is more, Poroshenko’s move took away arguments from the Ukrainian opposition, claiming that a Martial Law is going to have a direct impact on the conduct of the presidential elections. Today, we know that it would not.

Furthermore, it is necessary to underline that – according to the Decree – all Ukrainian forces entered into full combat readiness, thus a Martial Law can be also assessed as a try to check if the army can function in the conditions of a conventional war (not solely a ‘hybrid warfare’ as up to that date).

Can we say that Petro Poroshenko has increased his ratings with a decision on introducing Martial Law and strengthen his position before the presidential elections?

We can say that Poroshenko won the current information space, including the social media channels, however it does not mean that he had already won the elections. It is really difficult to predict if and how a Martial Law can be used in politics by Poroshenko – I think that a crucial date will come on 27th December, when a Martial Law is going to be concluded. Poroshenko’s decision after that date would show us a broader picture of his political strategy for the forthcoming months.

Nevertheless, I do not really think that a Martial Law may help any politician in increasing his or her ratings. The ‘only’ difference between Poroshenko and, for instance, Yulia Tymoshenko, in that matter, touches the issue of being a President, thus an official representative of the Ukrainian state, legally and politically responsible for his conduct. Therefore, in order to seriously think about victory in the elections, Petro Poroshenko should report to the Ukrainian citizens on his activities (also under the scope of a Martial Law, but not necessarily limited to that question), or, in other words, conduct a constant and open dialogue with society.    

What is important to recall, a presidential decree on the Martial Law provides a possibility of limiting some human rights, especially in the area of civil rights. Is it possible that the Ukrainian authorities would use this extraordinary competence, for instance as an instrument of political pressure on society?

In his few statements after the introduction of a Martial Law, Poroshenko announced that the use of the full scope of provisions embodied in the Decree (and the Verkhovna Rada’s subsequent statute) is fully dependent on the future act of aggression conducted by the Russian Federation or the escalation of military activities in Donbas. I do not think that Poroshenko would be likely to exercise his legal competences in that area.

Therefore, a question arises whether a subsequent act of the Russian aggression against Ukraine is really going to happen?

A lot of people is saying today that since the armed conflict is ongoing for more than the last four years, a situation, although difficult, is more or less predictable. Nonetheless, we could ask, if anyone anticipated anyone anticipated the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in 2014, except for the people who discussed the issue from the ideological point of view? To my mind – no. On the other hand, we cannot forget that a lot of has been changed since the Spring of 2014, especially in the information sphere and in the people’s attitude towards Moscow. I am sure that a Martial Law would consolidate an already very strong anti-Russian discourse among Ukrainian nationals and the authorities in Kyiv. At the same time, I would like to emphasize that there is no anti-Polish discourse in Ukraine, and even if from time to time we can argue on some issues (especially the common but difficult history), there is no official stance of the Ukrainian authorities that can be named as anti-Polish. Our “Slava Ukrajini” (Glory to Ukraine) is definitely directed at our Eastern not Western borders.  

Although, I think that it is in Russia’s interest to affect Ukrainian internal politics, rather than to provoke an escalation of the use of direct force against Ukraine – it would help Putin to convince the West on the nonsense of sanctions imposed on Russia. In particular, this scenario can come true, if any pro-Russian fraction wins the elections in Ukraine – Putin would gain a fantastic argument in the discussions with Western leaders to cancel sanctions: “look, in Ukraine there is a lot of Russian-speaking inhabitants, most of them pray in the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and have already made a decision in what reality they want to live”. Thus, it is significant for Ukraine to very precisely formulate its political aims to Western partners, at present.

Many experts discussed the question of the direct cause of the last Russian aggression in the Azov Sea, whether it was ‘incidental’ or maybe should be analysed as a part of the wider strategy of Vladimir Putin with reference to Ukraine and the area of the Black and Azov seas. What is your opinion on that issue?

Undoubtedly, Russia is willing to transform the Azov Sea into the internal lake of the Federation. Needless to say, Mariupol and Berdyansk are very important ports for Ukraine, responsible for huge rates of import and export from and to the country, namely for the Donbas region. Putin wanted to conquer this area in 2014 and if he had succeeded, Ukraine would have had a really huge problems to resist. What is also necessary to recall is that two months ago two unarmed ships of the Ukrainian Navy travelling from Odessa to Mariupol unbeknownst to the Russian Federation. Therefore, I consider the act of Russians observed on 25th November as a sort of a ‘ritual gesture’ to show that Ukrainian ships cannot move freely on the Azov and Black Seas, especially close to the Crimean Peninsula, seen as a ‘sacral terrain’ for Kremlin.

Moreover, we cannot exclude also that the Russian Federation wanted to affect the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to finally approve a Tomos for Ukraine, what seems to be really frustrating for Putin – showing that Ukraine is not a fully stable country, being forced to introduce a Martial Law, since it cannot deal with difficult ‘internal’ issues on a regular basis.   

Unsurprisingly, the Russian narrative on the events of 25th November on the Azov Sea was just another act of its festival of manipulation and policy of disinformation (for instance, by indicating allegedly ‘territorial waters’ of the Russian Federation next to the Crimean Peninsula). I would like to ask you, whether 5 years after the Revolution of Dignity and almost 5 years of the ongoing war in the East, has the Ukrainian society became more resistant towards the propaganda of Kremlin?

Here we have to invoke at least a few factors, trying to answer this question. Firstly, the Ukrainian society is really exhausted after almost 5 years of overcoming constant crises witnessed in the country (obviously, mostly being a consequence of the Russian aggression). Unfortunately, the Ukrainian authorities lack the comprehensive policy of the strategic communication with its own people. Secondly, the position of the opposition fractions in the Ukrainian politics, very often functioning in accordance with the old Bolshevik principle ‘the worse, the better’, what was seen during the discussion on the parameters of a Martial Law. Thirdly, the presence and large number of the Russian agents. With no doubts, the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 are crucial for Moscow in achieving its imperialist goals towards Ukraine, thus it is really necessary to increase efforts in countering the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Trying to forecast the upcoming presidential campaign, I would like to ask you about the real importance of such questions as the end of the hostilities in the East, reintegration of the occupied territories into the Ukrainian state or, for instance, the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas, for the Ukrainian voters?

On the one hand, the issue of the restoration of the full control of Kyiv over the occupied territories remains one of the most significant for the society. However, on the other, I believe that the presidential campaign will be based on social and economic argumentation, especially having in mind that most of the candidates are playing strongly with populist slogans. They – coming from the opposition – can promise literally everything, while Poroshenko has to report all of his activities before the voters.

Moreover, all of those issues, like reintegration of Donbas or the creation of a UN peacekeeping mission are fully dependent on the position of the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, in parallel, I do not see any comprehensive strategy of Kyiv to restore the full jurisdiction over Donbas and Crimea, what confuses the inhabitants of Ukraine.

Taking into consideration the presidential elections in Ukraine, it is worth mentioning that last year you published a book called ‘The Sixth’, in which you described all five presidents of Ukraine after 1991. Moreover, in the book you left an open question, who is going to be the next – the Sixth – president of the Ukrainian state. Is it possible to predict the name of the winner of the 2019 elections, still four months before the voting and one month before the start of the campaign?

I do not exclude such a possibility that in 2019 the Fifth will remain on the post of president. Although, who would not be ‘the Sixth’ president of Ukraine, if our society do not transform itself, people would constantly expect a ‘superhero’ with the presidential mace, being able to deal with all tough issues. It is simply not possible.

We have to remember that for Ukraine a real victory in the process of transforming our country means the successful de-oligarchisation, decentralisation, development of the Ukrainian military forces and the creation of a positive image of Ukraine in the Western world. Of course, we cannot forget about the restoration of the territorial integrity – all of those factors may help Ukraine on the path to integrate with the European Union and NATO. Until it becomes reality, Russia may have the illusion that Ukraine may someday return to its sphere of influence. 

Yevhen Mahda is an Ukrainian political scientist and analyst. The Executive Director of the Institute of World Policy, a think-tank based in Kyiv. Since April 2017 is a member of the Public Council under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

Tomasz Lachowski is a lawyer and journalist. He has a PhD in international law from the University of Łódź and is the editor in chief of the Polish online magazine Obserwator Międzynarodowy (International Observer).

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