Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down Wednesday on his faltering invasion of Ukraine with a declaration of martial law in four illegally annexed regions and preparations within Russia for draconian new restrictions and crackdowns
ByHANNA ARHIROVA, YURAS KARMANAU and SABRA AYRES Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down Wednesday on his faltering invasion of Ukraine with a declaration of martial law in four illegally annexed regions and preparations within Russia for draconian new restrictions and crackdowns.
Putin’s drastic efforts to tighten his grip on Ukrainians and Russians follow a series of embarrassing setbacks: stinging battlefield defeats, sabotage and troubles with his troop mobilization.
The martial law order belies the Kremlin’s attempts to portray life in the annexed regions as returning to normal. The reality is that a military administration has replaced civilian leaders in the southern city of Kherson and a mass evacuation from the city is underway as a Ukrainian counteroffensive grinds on.
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 heading into winter, when front lines could largely freeze for months. It’s the largest city Russia has held during the war, which began Feb. 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 on the banks of the Dnieper River, many with small children, to cross by boats to the east — and, from there, deeper into Russian-controlled territory.
In announcing martial law effective Thursday, Putin told his Security Council, “We are working to solve very difficult large-scale tasks to ensure Russia’s security and safe future.”
Putin’s army is under growing pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has clawed back territory. The Russian leader is also faltering after the sabotage of a strategically important bridge linking Russia with Crimea, assassinations of Kremlin-installed officials in Kherson and mistakes he himself has admitted in his partial troop mobilization.
Putin’s martial law declaration authorized the creation of civil defense forces; the potential imposition of curfews; restrictions on travel and public gatherings; tighter censorship; and broader law enforcement powers in Kherson and the other annexed regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
In an ominous move, Putin opened the door for restrictive measures to be extended across Russia, too. That may lead to a tougher crackdown on dissent than the current dispersal of antiwar protests and jailing of people making statements or providing information about the fighting that differs from the official line.
The severity of new restrictions inside Russia depends on proximity to Ukraine.
Putin put areas nearest Ukraine on medium alert, including annexed Crimea, Krasnodar, Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Rostov. Local leaders are authorized to organize territorial defense, ensure public order and safety, safeguard transportation, communication and energy facilities, and use these resources to help meet the Russian military’s needs.
Leaders in these border areas can also carry out resettlements of residents and restrict freedom of movement. Leaders in other areas have been granted similar powers, depending on their alert level.
In the Kherson region, Ukrainian forces have pushed back Russian positions on the west bank of the Dnieper River. By pulling civilians out and fortifying positions in the region’s main city, which backs onto the river, Russian forces appear to be hoping that the wide, 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 routes out, and no other choice.
Under martial law, authorities can force evacuations. Ukraine’s national security chief, Oleksiy Danilov, said on Twitter that Putin’s declaration is “preparation for the mass deportation of the Ukrainian population to the depressed regions of Russia to change the ethnic composition of the occupied territory.”
For months, reports have circulated of forced deportations, and an Associated Press investigation found that Russian officials deported thousands of Ukrainian children to be raised as Russian.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Putin’s decree is illegal, calling it part of his effort “to deprive the inhabitants of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine of even basic human rights.”
Russian authorities played up fears of an attack on Kherson, seemingly to persuade residents to leave. Text messages warned residents to expect shelling, Russian state media reported.
One resident reached by phone described military vehicles leaving the city, Moscow-installed authorities scrambling to load documents onto trucks, and thousands of people lining up for ferries and buses.
“It looks more like a panic rather than an organized evacuation. People are buying the last remaining groceries in grocery shops and are running to the Kherson river port, where thousands of people are already waiting,” the resident, Konstantin, said. The AP is withholding his family name, as he requested, for his safety.
“People are scared by talk of 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 the Ukrainian presidential office, called the evacuation “a propaganda show” and said Russia’s claims that Kyiv’s forces might shell Kherson “a rather primitive tactic, given that the armed forces do not fire at Ukrainian cities.”
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the operation could presage intense fighting and “the harshest” tactics from Russia’s new commander for Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin.
In an interview, Zhdanov stated that “they are ready to wipe the city off the face of the Earth but not give it back to the Ukrainians.”
Surovikin acknowledged the pressure that Kyiv’s forces are applying for the first time, calling the situation in Kherson “very difficult.” The remarks were interpreted by Russian bloggers as a warning of a potential Kremlin retreat. According to local officials, the destruction of a hydroelectric facility, which Surovikin claimed Ukrainian forces intended to do, would flood a portion of Kherson.
Russian airstrikes have increased, with a scorched-earth campaign aimed at Ukrainian power plants and other critical infrastructure. Russia has struggled to hold all the territory it has taken, and it is struggling due to manpower and equipment losses. Russia has increased its use of Iranian drones that have been converted into weapons to attack apartment buildings and other civilian targets.
On Wednesday, Russia fired a large number of missiles over Ukraine. According to Ukrainian authorities, they shot down 10 Iranian drones in addition to four cruise missiles. In the regions of Vinnytsia and Ivano-Frankivsk, energy facilities were damaged.
The air raid sirens in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, alerted many people to seek shelter in the metro stations. In order to save energy, the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, declared that seasonal central heating would begin on Thursday at a lower temperature than usual.
Oleksandr Kharchenko, a representative of Ukraine’s energy sector, stated on Wednesday that 40% of the nation’s electrical infrastructure had suffered significant damage. In order to prevent blackouts on Thursday, authorities warned all residents to reduce their consumption. Enerhodar was one of the areas where power and water were said to have been cut off by overnight shelling. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, one of the conflict’s most worrisome flashpoints, is close to the southern city.
The regional governor reported that a power plant close to Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih in south-central Ukraine was severely damaged by missiles, cutting power to nearby villages, towns, and one city district.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.
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