Why Did Ukraine Ban Russian Men From Entering the Country?

Ukraine has banned Russian men aged 16 to 60 from entering the country, as the risk of military confrontation between the two neighbors reached its highest point in several years.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been simmering, with regular outbursts of violence, since Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Last weekend, a clash between naval vessels from the two countries in the Sea of Azov began a fresh and potent round of escalation.

Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko, who claimed to possess evidence of preparations for a major Russian ground offensive into Ukraine, announced that extra border restrictions would be imposed.

All foreigners will face added checks, and Russian men aged 16 to 60 will not be allowed to enter the country at all. According to the Associated Press, Poroshenko said the measures were taken "in order to prevent the Russian Federation from forming private armies" on Ukrainian soil.

Following the Euromaidan protests and overthrow of the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian government in 2014, unidentified armed men appeared at vital strategic locations in Crimea. Bearing no national markings and refusing to say who they were, the troops became known as "little green men"—a reference to their green military fatigues.

It soon became clear the men were Russian soldiers, infiltrating the peninsula to bring it under control before Moscow ordered an official occupation of the region.

The new border measures were designed to prevent a repeat of this. According to Petro Tsygykal, chief of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service, the rules will remain in place as part of the 30-day martial law declared on Monday in 10 of Ukraine's 25 provinces. All border Russia, Belarus and Moldova's breakaway republic of Trans-Dniester.

Ukrainian servicemen attend a military drill near the village of Urzuf, Ukraine, on November 29. The country is on high alert following a clash between Ukrainian and Russian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov on November 25. SEGA VOLSKII/AFP/Getty Images

According to the state-backed Russia Today media agency, the foreign ministry in Moscow said it was not planning to introduce similar rules for Ukrainian men traveling across the border to Russia.

Andrew Wilson, professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College London in the U.K., told Newsweek that Ukraine's official explanation for the new rules "is sound," saying the move was intended "to stop 'little green men' appearing, or 'polite people,'" using some of the nicknames given to the advance Russian troops in Crimea. "We know the deal," Wilson added.

Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the British Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek the ban is a response to "real risks of further Russian encroachment into Ukraine and the Kremlin continues the strategy to destabilize Ukraine beyond the conflict in Donbass."

How effective the restrictions will be is another matter. "How many people you'd actually catch in the dragnet, considering direct flights don't really exist anymore, is one question," Wilson noted. However, the simple proximity between Russia and Ukraine makes it much easier for Russians to make it across the border and "foment trouble," he added, "so simply reducing that number makes sense."

Russia is still holding the 24 Ukrainian sailors and three ships captured in Sunday's incident. Moscow accused the sailors of violating its waters and refusing to stop when asked to do so. The vessels were blocked from leaving the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait by a Russian tanker parked under the new Crimean Bridge.

Fighter jets and attack helicopters were deployed to assist Russian vessels, which chased the Ukrainian ships down, rammed one and opened fire on all three. Six Ukrainian sailors were wounded.

According to the BBC, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday the incident was "a provocation" organized by the Ukrainian government "in the run-up to the Ukrainian presidential election," which Poroshenko is expected to lose.

For Lutsevych, "It would be a stretch to say that the electoral logic was the driver for this decision." But regardless, now that it is in place, it will impact the electoral outcome one way or the other," Lutsevych explained. "The martial law is a double-edged sword. It could help the President and the armed forces to deliver a more effective response to Russia's continued encroachment and multiple threats. But it could undermine confidence in the capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces and their commander-in-chief in defending the homeland," she added.

Ukraine and foreign observers said the naval incident marked the culmination of a yearslong effort by Moscow to force its authority on the Sea of Azov, the waters of which are shared between the two countries, according to a 2003 agreement.

Ukraine also accused Moscow of blocking the country's Sea of Azov ports in the aftermath of Sunday's clash. Russia denied the allegations.

An escalation could inflict great pain on eastern Ukraine. "A de facto blockade will strangle the economic life out of a very fragile area," Wilson warned.

This article has been updated to include comments from Andrew Wilson and Orysia Lutsevych.

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