Amid Signs of New Counteroffensive, Putin Declares Martial Law in Four Annexed Ukrainian Territories

Dimitri Simes | October 19, 2022 | 4:52pm EDT
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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting on Wednesday. (Photo by Sergei Ilyin / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting on Wednesday. (Photo by Sergei Ilyin / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday declared martial law in four Russian-held territories that he has sought to annex from Ukraine.

The move comes amid signs that Ukraine is preparing to conduct a new major counteroffensive in the south.

During a nationally televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council, Putin announced that he had signed a decree to introduce martial law in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions, all of which are completely or partially controlled by Russian troops.

Russia moved to formally annex the four territories following a series of referendums last month whose legitimacy was strongly disputed by Kyiv and its Western supporters.

Declaring martial law provides Russian authorities with the legal power to impose curfews and travel restrictions, seize property belonging to private citizens and enterprises for military purposes, relocate local residents to other regions of Russia, and tighten military censorship of political speech and activity.

Putin also introduced a “medium response level” in eight Russian regions bordering Ukraine, a move which allows local governments to begin forming territorial defense units and bolster security at strategic locations.

He appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to head up committees to help ensure coordination between the Kremlin and regional governors.

“We are working to solve very difficult large-scale tasks to ensure Russia’s security and safe future, to protect our people,” he told the Security Council. “Those who are on the frontlines or undergoing training at firing ranges and training grounds should feel our support and know that they have our big, great country and unified people behind their back.”

Asked for his response to Putin’s martial law announcement, President Biden suggested it was a sign of limited options for the Russian leader.

“I think that Vladimir Putin finds himself in an incredibly difficult position,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “And what it reflects, to me, is it seems his only tool available to him is to brutalize individual citizens in Ukraine – Ukrainian citizens – to try to intimidate them into capitulating. They’re not going to do that.”

Putin’s martial law declaration is his latest move to ramp up his government’s military effort in Ukraine. Last month, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 of its estimated two million military reservists. The move is expected to help Moscow replenish its fighting force in Ukraine after nearly eight months of heavy combat.

Over the past week, Russia has also launched a large-scale campaign of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, reportedly destroying 30 percent of Ukraine’s energy facilities and causing power outages across the country.

The escalatory moves were a response to a series of Ukrainian counteroffensives over the past month that saw Kyiv’s forces retake large swaths of territory. In response to the Ukrainian gains, prominent Russian politicians began urging the Kremlin to pursue a more aggressive strategy.

Russian authorities are warning that Ukraine is likely to launch another large-scale counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region in the coming days or weeks. Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces managed to push the frontline in Kherson back by 20-30 kilometers, after weeks of heavy fighting.

Russian war correspondents have reported the amassing of Ukrainian troops and equipment near Kherson.

General Sergey Surovikin, the recently appointed top commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, told state television on Tuesday that the situation in Kherson was “complicated,” conceding that the Russian military may be forced to make “difficult decisions” depending on how the battle for the region unfolded.

Ahead of the expected showdown, Russian forces have already begun work on transforming Kherson’s regional center into a “fortress city” and evacuating local residents.

Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-installed acting governor of Kherson, said his administration had already relocated to the left bank of the Dnipro river, an area under stronger Russian control.

He added that about 50,000-60,000 people would be evacuated from Kherson’s regional center and nearby settlements over the next week.

“No one is about to surrender Kherson but it’s undesirable for residents to be in a city where hostilities are going to take place,” Saldo told Russian state television.

“At the current moment we have enough possibilities to repel attacks and go on the counter-offensive, if the tactical situation demands it,” he added. “The city will hold out, we simply need to protect peaceful residents. The soldiers know what they have to do, they will stand to the death.”

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