By Steve Rosenberg
His “special military operation” has not gone according to plan. As a result of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, Russia has been losing territory it had occupied.
Meanwhile, Russian regions bordering Ukraine have been coming under sustained shelling.
What’s more, the Kremlin’s announcement last month of “partial mobilisation” sparked widespread alarm in Russian society.
President Putin’s response? It’s not, “Sorry, I made a huge mistake by invading Ukraine.” It is tighter security. Not just in occupied Ukraine, but across Russia.
He’s doubling down.
With a Kremlin decree, Vladimir Putin has imposed martial law in the four Ukrainian regions he claims to have annexed: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.
It’s not clear what difference, if any, that will make there: it certainly won’t persuade Ukrainian troops to lay down their weapons. Kyiv is determined to win back lost territory.
But the Kremlin leader has also tightened security across Russia, with the introduction of three different security levels.
In those regions close to the border with Ukraine, such as Belgorod, Bryansk, Krasnodar and Rostov regions, as well as in annexed Crimea, a “medium level of response” has been declared. Measures include boosting security and public order: the decree also envisages restrictions on the movement of traffic, as well as on entry into and exit from these regions.
The next level down is “heightened readiness”. This applies to central and southern regions of Russia, including Moscow. The presidential decree mentions “vehicle searches and traffic restrictions”, as well as “tighter public order security”.
In a message on social media, Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin tried to reassure Muscovites that “there will be no measures restricting the normal rhythm of life”. That remains to be seen.
The lowest security level applies to the rest of the country (in effect, northern Russia, Siberia and the Russian Far East.)
All regional governors have been instructed to establish “operational headquarters” in order to carry out President Putin’s order. The leaders of each region, as well as officers from the military and police, will be among them.
Additionally, regional governors have been told to “meet the needs of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, other troops, and troop formations.” This appears to grant the Russian military more authority.
How will everything function in real life? It might take some time before that is obvious.
It is evident that President Putin’s security system can be used by the government to impose restrictions on freedoms across Russia and mobilize resources for the “special military operation.”
There is also nothing to stop regions from being “upgraded” to a higher security level, including martial law, if the security situation in Russia worsens.
What does this reveal about the president of Russia?
Vladimir Putin doesn’t appear to be looking for a way out of this crisis. With this decree, we do see a Kremlin leader who is committed to maintaining power.