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Poroshenko ends martial law in Ukraine as tensions with Russia continue

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Michał Józefaciuk/Wikimedia)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced the end of martial law in the country’s border regions that was imposed last month after Russia seized Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea.

“Today, right now, at 2 p.m. martial law ends. This is my principal decision,” Poroshenko said during a military cabinet meeting in Kyiv on December 26.

Poroshenko said he had reached the decision “based on an analysis of all the components of the security situation in the country.”

Later the same day, the Interior Ministry announced that Ukraine would nonetheless maintain its ban on entry into the country for male Russian citizens aged 16 to 60.

More than 1,600 Russian men have been denied entry into Ukraine since the ban was imposed in late November.

On November 26, Ukraine’s parliament backed Poroshenko’s request to introduce martial law after Russian forces fired on Ukrainian ships and seized 24 Ukrainian nationals near the Kerch Strait.

The seamen remain in Russian custody and are facing criminal charges of illegally crossing Russia’s border.

The European Union and the United States have said Russia’s actions were illegal and have called on Moscow to immediately return the vessels and their crews to Ukraine.

The incident, during which a Russian vessel rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat, further escalated the conflict between the ex-Soviet neighbors that flared up in 2014 with Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Russia has provided military, economic, and political support to separatist militants in eastern Ukraine. About 10,300 people have been killed since early 2014 in that conflict, which the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled in November 2016 was “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”

The 30-day martial law was imposed in 10 regions, including those close to areas controlled by Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country, abutting the Russia-backed separatist Transdniester region in Moldova, and along the Sea of Azov coast.

Despite the lifting of martial law, tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high, with both sides asserting that the other was planning aggressive acts.

‘Provocation’ Claims

Despite the lifting of martial law, tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high. Top Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have claimed that Kyiv was preparing a “provocation” in the border area.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on December 24 that Russia was concerned Ukraine might “switch to full-scale combat actions within the next few days” or stage a provocation using “chemical-warfare agents.”

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on December 26 without providing any supporting evidence that “leaders of ultrarightist groups from the U.S. have been training for months together with radical organizations in Ukraine.”

“Feeling such support [from the United States], Poroshenko confidently resorts to provocative steps, including on the Ukrainian-Russian border,” Patrushev said. “In the light of upcoming [Ukrainian presidential] elections, it can be predicted that new such actions with U.S. support could be expected in the near future.”

Ukraine has said Russia is amassing military forces along the border, in the annexed Crimea region, and in the Black Sea area.

Speaking at a military event in Kyiv on December 1, Poroshenko said Russia has deployed “more than 80,000 troops, 1,400 artillery and multiple-rocket-launch systems, 900 tanks, 2,300 armored combat vehicles, 500 airplanes, and 300 helicopters” near the border.

During the National Security and Defense Council meeting on December 26, Poroshenko said “Ukraine will never halt the use of its Azov ports, including by military vessels.”