KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday doubled his staggering invasion of Ukraine with a declaration of martial law in four illegally annexed regions and preparations in Russia for further restrictions and draconian repressions.
Putin’s drastic efforts to tighten his grip on Ukrainians and Russians follow a series of embarrassing setbacks: bitter defeats on the battlefield, sabotage and problems mobilizing his troops.
The martial law order belies attempts by the Kremlin to portray life in the annexed regions as returning to normal. The reality is that a military administration has replaced civilian leadership in the southern city of Kherson and a mass evacuation of the city is underway as a Ukrainian counteroffensive grind on it.
The battle for Kherson, a city of more than 250,000 people with key industries and a major port, is a pivotal moment for Ukraine and Russia as winter approaches, when front lines could be in large party freeze for months. It is the largest city Russia has occupied during the war, which began on February 24.
A trickle of evacuations from the city in recent days has become a flood. Local officials said Wednesday that 5,000 had left out of an expected 60,000. Russian state television showed residents crowding the banks of the Dnieper, many with young children, to cross by boat to the east – and, from there, deeper into Russian-held territory.
Announcing the entry into force of martial law on Thursday, Putin told his Security Council: “We are working to solve very difficult large-scale tasks to ensure Russia’s security and secure future.”
Putin’s army is under increasing pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has reclaimed territory. The Russian leader is also reeling from the sabotage of a strategically important bridge linking Russia and Crimea, the assassinations of Kremlin-installed officials in Kherson and mistakes he himself admitted in his partial troop mobilization.
Putin’s declaration of martial law authorized the creation of civil defense forces; the potential imposition of curfews; restrictions on travel and public gatherings; stricter censorship; and greater law enforcement powers in Kherson and the other annexed regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
In a worrying move, Putin also opened the door to extending the restrictive measures to all of Russia. This may lead to a harsher crackdown on dissent than the current dispersal of anti-war protests and the jailing of people making statements or providing information about the fighting that differ from the official line.
The severity of the new restrictions inside Russia depends on the proximity to Ukraine.
Putin has placed areas closest to Ukraine on medium alert, including annexed Crimea, Krasnodar, Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Rostov. Local leaders are authorized to organize territorial defense, to ensure public order and security, to safeguard means of transport, communication and energy, and to use these resources to meet the needs of the Russian army.
Rulers in these border areas may also relocate residents and restrict freedom of movement. Leaders in other domains have been granted similar powers, depending on their alert level.
In the Kherson region, Ukrainian forces pushed back Russian positions on the west bank of the Dnieper. By withdrawing civilians and fortifying positions in the region’s main city, which backs onto the river, Russian forces seem to hope that the wide and deep waters will serve as a natural barrier against the Ukrainian advance.
Russia has said the movement of Ukrainians to Russia or Russian-controlled territory is voluntary, but in many cases they have no other exit routes or other options.
Under martial law, authorities can force evacuations. Ukraine’s national security chief Oleksiy Danilov said on Twitter that Putin’s statement is “a preparation for the mass deportation of the Ukrainian population to depressed regions of Russia to change the ethnic composition of the occupied territory.”
For months, reports circulated of forced deportations, and an Associated Press investigation found that Russian authorities deported thousands of Ukrainian children to be raised as Russians.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Putin’s decree was illegal, calling it part of his efforts “to deprive residents of Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories of even the most basic human rights.”
Russian authorities exaggerated fears of an attack on Kherson, apparently to persuade residents to leave. Text messages warned residents to expect shelling, Russian state media reported.
A resident reached by phone described military vehicles leaving the city, Moscow-based authorities rushing to load documents onto trucks and thousands of people queuing for ferries and buses.
“It looks more like a panic than an organized evacuation. People buy the latest groceries from grocery stores and run to the Kherson river port, where thousands of people are already waiting,” resident Konstantin said. The AP is withholding his last name, as he requested, for his safety.
“People are scared talking about explosions, missiles and a possible blockade of the city,” he added.
Leaflets told evacuees they could take two large suitcases, medicine and food for a few days.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, called the evacuation a “propaganda spectacle” and said Russia’s claims that Kyiv forces might bomb Kherson “a rather primitive tactic, given that the armed forces do not shoot at Ukrainian cities”.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the operation could portend intense fighting and “toughest” tactics from Russia’s new commander for Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin.
“They are ready to wipe the city off the face of the Earth, but not to return it to the Ukrainians,” Zhdanov said in an interview.
In a rare acknowledgment of pressure from troops in Kyiv, Surovikin called the situation in Kherson “very difficult”. Russian bloggers interpreted the comments as a warning of a possible Kremlin withdrawal. Surovikin claimed that Ukrainian forces planned to destroy a hydroelectric facility, which local officials said would flood part of Kherson.
Unable to hold all the territory it seized and grappling with manpower and equipment losses, Russia intensified aerial bombardment, with a scorched earth campaign targeting Ukrainian power plants and other key infrastructure. Russia has also increased its use of armed Iranian drones to strike apartment buildings and other civilian targets.
Russia launched a number of missiles at Ukraine on Wednesday. Ukrainian authorities said they shot down four cruise missiles and 10 Iranian drones. Energy facilities were hit in the Vinnytsia and Ivano-Frankivsk regions.
Air raid sirens sounded in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, sending many people to metro stations for shelter. Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced that the city would start seasonal central heating on Thursday at lower than normal temperatures to save energy.
A Ukrainian energy official, Oleksandr Kharchenko, reported on Wednesday that 40% of the country’s electricity system had been seriously damaged. Authorities warned all residents to reduce their consumption and said the power supply would be reduced on Thursday to avoid blackouts. One area where electricity and water were reported to have been cut off due to nighttime shelling was Enerhodar. The southern city is next to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is one of the most worrying hotspots of the war.
Missiles severely damaged an energy facility near Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, a city in south-central Ukraine, knocking out power to villages, towns and a city district, reports the regional governor.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.
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