With Ukraine’s electoral campaign set to kick off on the last day of the year, unpopular Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is using “Russian aggression” in this battle for re-election next March.
But the concept may backfire. Amid a declaration of martial law, many observers are questioning how essential the step is on the verge of the electoral season.
On November 25, Russian coastal patrol craft intercepted and captured three Ukrainian vessels off the coast of Crimea while they were trying to navigate through the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, and which is now crossed by a Russian bridge leading to the Moscow-annexed Crimea.
A total of 24 Ukrainian sailors were captured and held prisoner for violating Russian national waters.
Declaring the incident an open act of aggression, Poroshenko issued an executive proposal for martial law, which was approved by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.
Once the order came into force, additional troops were sent to patrol the Russian borders, reservists were mobilized and male Russian citizens aged from 16 to 60 were barred from entering Ukraine. The latter measure, the president said, serves the purpose “of preventing infiltration by Russian military intelligence and potential militants.”
Who’s provoking who – and why?
With martial law set for a run of 60 days across Ukraine, the electoral campaign, scheduled to start on December 31, looked compromised. Many suspect the president intentionally provoked the Kerch Strait clash to postpone the election – or worse, to give an authoritarian turn to Ukraine’s fragile democracy.
The first to fuel these concerns were, of course, the Russian government and pro-Kremlin media, which defined the Kerch incident a “clear provocation” orchestrated by Poroshenko to gain political advantage.
The pro-European, pro-NATO Poroshenko was elected in the aftermath of the “Euromaidan revolution,” which resulted in the ousting of corrupt, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. His electoral win was a poisoned chalice – with the economy a shambles and a Kremlin-funded civil war ravaging the country’s east, Poroshenko faced massive challenges.
In his four-year presidency, his ratings have been falling steadily, as the economy struggles to recover from the 2014-2015 free fall, while the dream of European integration, the main catalyst of the Maidan revolution, remains distant.
According to recent polls, only 8% of Ukrainians would vote for Poroshenko. Ex-prime minister and Fatherland Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko was considered the frontrunner with 14% support. Another outlying candidate, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, was considered to be in a better position than the incumbent.
Concerns about the elections being postponed because of martial law turned out to be unfounded after parliament shortened the duration of martial law to 30 days and limited it to 10 regions bordering Russia and the Russia-controlled Republic of Transnistria.
Poroshenko confirmed that elections will be taking place as previously scheduled “unless Ukraine will have to defend itself from open Russian aggression.” “In that case,” the president said, “we will be defending the country.”
“Paradoxically, further aggressive actions from the Russian side would play in Poroshenko’s favor as his decision to declare martial law would turn out to be justified,” said Konstantin Skorkin, a journalist who specializes in Russia-Ukraine relations.
Martial law: more cons than pros
However, no signs of imminent Russian aggression are in sight. Martial law is being widely seen across Ukraine as an overreaction – especially given that such a measure was never introduced during the four-year war that has been raging between Kremlin-backed separatists and governmental forces in the country’s southeast.
According to Skorkin, by introducing martial law, Poroshenko is trying to win the sympathy of patriots and nationalists, who have been criticizing him for not to being “tough enough” with Russia. Rival Tymoshenko has been blaming him for avoiding the term “war” when talking about the conflict with Russian-sponsored separatists, which Poroshenko instead labels an “anti-terrorist operation.”
“Poroshenko is clearly trying to raise his approval rating through patriotic mobilization,” said Shorkin. “He wants to show that he doesn’t fear a direct military confrontation with Russia.”
Poroshenko’s electoral slogan is “army, language, faith,” which he defined as “the formula of the contemporary Ukrainian identity.” By granting extraordinary powers to the military, the institution which Ukrainian people trust the most, according to polls, Poroshenko is trying to boost his public support.
Leonid Litra, a Senior Research Fellow at the New Europe Center, said the naval clash on the Kerch Strait left Poroshenko with little choice other than martial law; a milder reaction would have meant political suicide.
“Poroshenko had to have a strong reaction, since any weakness at times when Ukraine is attacked could have cost him a loss of credibility among his electorate and lowered even more his chances to get re-elected”, Litra said.
However, Poroshenko’s strategy risks backfiring, considering the high rate of mistrust towards the president and the widespread feeling that martial law is a propagandistic tool.
In particular, Poroshenko risks further alienating Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority, concentrated in eastern Ukraine. This is the region that suffered the most from Poroshenko’s nationalistic policies, such as those imposing Ukrainian as an obligatory language in many spheres of life.
“Many think that Poroshenko is using martial law to target regions disloyal to him, to put some kind of pressure on the Russian-speaking minority,” explained Skorkin, who thinks this will give additional leverage for Russian-friendly forces to channel popular discontent during the electoral campaign.
And, of course, Moscow has a strategy, too. A diplomatic source told Asia Times that President Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine destabilized and divided, but without pushing it further toward the West.
According to Litra, the Kremlin is using a mixture of propaganda, economic pressure and diplomatic offensives to sow discord and aggravate social tensions within Ukraine. It also wants Poroshenko out.
“The Russians want Poroshenko to lose the elections, which they believe would lead to the weakening of the pro-Western, pro-American forces in the country,” said Skorkin.
A Russia-friendly opposition bloc led by Yuriy Boyko was the only faction in parliament that voted against martial law, pushing instead for direct negotiations with Russia to obtain the release of the detained sailors.
“The country is immersed in an atmosphere of fear,” Boiko said. “All this is a consequence of the fact that Petro Poroshenko tried to cancel or postpone the presidential election.”
Boiko promotes a position of geopolitical neutrality for Ukraine and a normalization of relations with Russia. But given the growth of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbass, it seems unlikely that any pro-Russian candidate has much chance of electoral success.
This is particularly so given that millions of potential pro-Russian voters are living in breakaway republics in the Donbass and are barred from voting.
Against a pro-Russian candidate, Poroshenko will be able to mobilize Ukrainian society, presenting himself as the defender of the nation against “Putin’s men,” according to Shorkin.
Even so, the upcoming elections look like an uphill battle for the embattled president. He looks set to face almost certain defeat against other pro-Western candidates.