Putin declares martial law in 4 illegally annexed Ukrainian regions

KYIV, Ukraine — President Vladimir V. Putin declared martial law in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine on Wednesday, but in a telltale sign that his real concerns may be much closer to home, he has also taken steps to put the economy back on a war footing. and imposed restrictions in more than two dozen regions across Russia.

As battlefield casualties pile up in Ukraine and the Russian public simmers over an unpopular military conscription order, Mr Putin’s actions seemed less a show of force than a sign of dismay.

In practice, Moscow has only tenuous control over the regions of eastern Ukraine where it imposed martial law, weeks after illegally annexing them. At the end of last month, the Russian military controlled most of Lugansk and Kherson, but only about half of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk. And on Wednesday, Russian officials ordered the evacuation of thousands of people in Kherson and said they could move the offices of its puppet government across the Dnipro River to a safer position.

In imposing the new restrictions, Mr Putin spoke of the besieged regions as if they were unmistakably Russian territory.

“I signed a decree on the introduction of martial law in these four constituent entities of the Russian Federation,” Putin said during a meeting of his Security Council. “In addition, in the current situation, I consider it necessary to give additional powers to the leaders of all Russian regions.”

Some of the changes were aimed at reorienting the Russian economy towards war. In border regions such as Crimea, for example, local authorities can now “mobilize the economy to meet the needs of the army”, specifies the order. But the Kremlin has also paved the way for even tighter population control.

“Putin has to prepare the country for much tougher times and he has to mobilize resources,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, said in a phone interview.

In Ukraine, the order of martial law will allow authorities to impose curfews, seize property, forcibly relocate residents, imprison undocumented immigrants, establish checkpoints and detain people for up to 30 days.

In Russia, the restrictions ended before martial law and, as with many Russian laws, their provisions are open to wide interpretation.

The new law, for example, allows the suspension of the activities of political parties, public organizations and religious groups, but also of any activity deemed to undermine the defense and security of the Russian Federation. It also allows governors to set restrictions on entering and leaving their region.

“In general, all this looks not so much like a struggle against an external enemy as an attempt to prevent the revolution that is maturing in the country,” wrote Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who now lives in Israel. on the Telegram messaging app.

Mr Putin said the Kremlin had no choice but to crack down.

The Ukrainian government, he claimed, “is trying to create an underground bandit, sending sabotage groups to our territory.” He cited the recent truck bombing of a vital bridge linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian territory Russia seized in 2014.

But some analysts saw the orders as intended less to protect Russian territory than to pave the way for the difficult days ahead.

Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said more changes were likely. “I suspect more special economic measures will be the next thing announced,” she said on Twitter. “The state needs more resources directed to the military.”

Some regional officials – including Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin – seemed to be trying to reassure. “At present, no measures are being introduced to limit the normal pace of life in the city,” Sobianine wrote on his Telegram channel.

And despite the new power given to them by Mr Putin, the regional governors of Kursk, Krasnodar and Voronezh have said that no entry or exit restrictions will be imposed.

But many Russians are sure to see a warning message in the martial law imposed on Ukraine, the first time Moscow has declared martial law since World War II, analysts say.

“People are afraid that they will close the borders soon, and the siloviki” — strongmen close to Mr Putin in the Kremlin – “will do what they want”, Ms Stanovaya said.

On Tuesday, the new Russian invasion commander, General Sergei Surovikin, acknowledged that his army’s position in Kherson was “difficult enough” and seemed to suggest that a tactical retreat might be necessary. General Surovikin said he was ready to make “tough decisions” about military deployments, but did not say more about what that might be.

In a sign that Ukraine’s hesitant invasion has eroded Moscow’s influence elsewhere, Russia recently redeployed critical military hardware and troops from Syria, according to three senior Middle East-based officials.

Russia, which has been a dominant military force in Syria since 2015 and helps maintain the government’s grip on power, still maintains a significant presence there. But the shift could herald shifts in the balance of power in one of the world’s most complicated conflict zones, and could lead Israel – Syria’s enemy – to rethink its stance toward the Ukraine conflict.

Vladimir Saldo, the Russian leader of the Kherson region, told Russian state television he estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people would be evacuated over the next six days. Videos broadcast on Russian media showed lines of civilians apparently boarding ferries at a river port to evacuate to the east bank of the Dnipro.

Russia’s ability to hold the western side of the river could be particularly sensitive in Moscow. Last month, US officials briefed on highly sensitive intelligence said Mr Putin had embarked more directly on strategic planning for the war in Ukraine, including rejecting demands from commanders on the ground that they be allowed to withdraw troops across the Dnipro River. .

Ukrainian officials dismissed the Russian statements as a ruse and a “propaganda show”, and said their real audience may be back home, where the Kremlin has tried to shore up support for the war.

The Russian army distributed leaflets in the city of Kherson encouraging residents to flee across the Dnipro, according to photographs posted on social media. One shows parents with a little boy, all smiles, with a Russian flag in the background. “Save your family, move to the east bank,” the text reads.

Another leaflet stated that evacuation routes were open to the occupied Crimean peninsula and two southern Russian provinces, Krasnodar and Stavropol, and suggested that Ukrainians “take your children and relatives!”

Nataliya Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Southern Military Command, said that under the pretext of evacuating civilians from danger, the Russian government was in fact continuing its practice of deporting Ukrainian adults and children from occupied territories to Russia. Rights groups have said that Russia is forcibly assimilating deported Ukrainian children.

Although Russia claimed it was moving civilians to protect them from the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces were slowed down by Russian troops after weeks of gains, with fierce fighting in the Kherson region.

Ukrainian troops suffered casualties among well-organized Russian forces as they advanced mile by mile over open fields with little cover. When Ukrainian troops set out to capture a road junction near the village of Duchany at the start of the offensive, for example, two soldiers from a company of the 98th Infantry Brigade were killed and more than a dozen others were injured, soldiers said in interviews.

The Ukrainian company had driven half a dozen armored personnel carriers with infantry at its apex, as the unit had too few vehicles to accommodate all the soldiers in the armored interiors, said a Ukrainian fighter, the Lieutenant Dmytro Kovtalyuk.

The Russians had deployed in rows of trees about a thousand meters from the road on both sides and opened fire with anti-tank missiles, while a Russian attack helicopter buzzed overhead, firing on the column with his machine gun.

By the time the company reached the junction, the Russians had withdrawn, leaving empty bunkers and trenches. The Ukrainians threw hand grenades – ‘just to check’, Lt. Kovtalyuk said – then climbed into the Russian positions and used them to defend against a counterattack with tanks that came hours later .

Ukrainian commanders are advancing in what they call a wave tactic. After one unit captures new positions, such as the Russian trenches at the road junction, another unit, the second wave, overtakes it in another effort to advance.

“We were counting on them running away, but they didn’t,” said Pvt. Andriy Bezpalko, one of the soldiers who fought in the battle for the crossroads. “They fought back.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Neil MacFarquhar from Paris. The report was provided by Oleg Matsnev from Berlin, Valeriya Safronova from Vienna, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Eric Nagourney from New York and Maria Varenikova from Kyiv.