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Russia-Ukraine Tensions Escalate, Ukraine Declares Martial Law


In Ukraine, lawmakers have voted to impose martial law in the country for the next month. This comes after a naval clash with Russia off the coast of Crimea on Sunday. The seizure of three Ukrainian boats is a serious escalation in a conflict that has been simmering since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea more than four years ago. Let's turn to NPR's correspondent in Moscow, Lucian Kim. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So catch us up briefly, if you can, about what happened Sunday and what brought us to this moment.

KIM: Well, amazingly, really there is actually general agreement on what happened. Three Ukrainian naval vessels were trying to pass through a narrow bottleneck between the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland. The Russian coast guard didn't want that to happen and stopped them with force. And now two dozen Ukrainian seamen are detained, as well as the boats. And Ukraine says six of those seamen are injured.

The bone of contention here is that narrow bottleneck. It's called the Kerch Strait. And before the annexation of Crimea, ships from both countries could pass through it freely. But since the annexation, Russia now controls both sides of it. They've opened a bridge over the Kerch Strait sort of symbolically cementing Crimea to Russia. And, of course, Ukraine cannot accept any of that.

GREENE: And so now, of course, the big question is will this widen into a larger conflict, which could be really significant. And you have Ukraine now imposing martial law in 10 of its provinces, which sounds like, I mean, they're preparing for some sort of conflict. But what does it actually mean for life in Ukraine?

KIM: Well, it's unclear exactly what the government is going to do now. There will be some kind of partial military mobilization, some strengthening of air defense. The government says they aren't planning to curb civil liberties, but they could still do that. The government did make some concessions to the opposition. They shortened that martial law to one month and also fixed the date for the presidential election to March 31 next year.

It's really hard to get around the political context. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, who proposed martial law, is very unpopular. And, of course, by imposing martial law, that's a very good way of sort of focusing people's minds and also mobilizing the population against an outside threat.

GREENE: Interesting. So there's some speculation this could be - there's some politics behind what the president's doing.

KIM: (Laughter). There's a lot of speculation about that.

GREENE: What about Russia, Lucian? I mean, the Russian foreign ministry is now warning Kiev and its allies about real consequences if there is a conflict. Does that tell us something about Russia's plans at all?

KIM: Well, it's always hard to second guess Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has already reacted to the imposition of martial law. It said could it could lead to higher tensions in those border regions. And rather ominously, the Kremlin spokesman said today that President Putin will express his viewpoint on the issue in the coming days.

But what's clear is that a flare-up in this conflict also doesn't necessarily hurt Putin domestically. Since his re-election in March, he's faced a lot of disillusionment in the population over his domestic policies, and his approval rating has actually dropped 20 percentage points over the last year. Of course, it was at an all-time high right after he annexed Crimea back in 2014.

GREENE: All right. Speaking to NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.