Putin declares martial law in occupied Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared martial law in the four Ukrainian territories illegally annexed by the Kremlin last month. Putin signed the declaration on Wednesday, giving Russian officials in the four regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — broad powers to regulate civilian and military affairs.

Putin announced the move during a meeting of Russia’s security council. “The Kyiv regime, as you know, refused to recognize the will and choice of people, rejecting any proposals for negotiations. To the contrary, shelling continues. Civilians are dying," he said, according to Moscow-based news agency Interfax.

He also denounced Ukraine’s “terrorist method,” according to the Moscow Times, a seeming reference to recent explosions of the Nord Stream pipelines and the Kerch Bridge.

According to an expanded text of the decree, martial law will allow Russian authorities in the four regions — which most of the international community recognizes as belonging to Ukraine — to “carry out mobilization measures in the economic sphere,” implement “civil defense measures” and take steps to “meet the needs of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a security council meeting on Wednesday. (Sergei Ilyn/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The decree will allow for “temporary resettlement of residents to safe areas” and “restriction of the movement of vehicles and their inspection,” raising the prospect of more suffering for civilians who have lived with the prospect of Russian shelling, looting and torture — all supposedly undertaken in the name of Putin’s envisioned Slavic unification project.

Martial law will go into effect on Thursday, with authorities there given three days to submit specific proposals of their own, according to text of Putin’s decree published by the Kremlin.

“It would allow for forced deportations into Russia,” says Russia expert Samuel Ramani of Oxford University, though he says the decree is vague enough to allow for any number of civilian and military developments. Ramani speculated to Yahoo News that the order could serve as a “pretext” to forcibly conscript men into military service and thus “more readily add cannon fodder to the battlefield,” where Russia has suffered devastating losses.

A rocket being fired from the back of a truck.
A counterattack being launched by Ukrainian forces against Russian forces in Kherson, Ukraine. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The order comes as Russia continues to lose territory it gained throughout its invasion of Ukraine, which is now entering its ninth month. Recent fighting has been especially heavy near Kherson, a key city in southern Ukraine, with Russian troops forced once more into retreat. Russia first occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014, during its first invasion of Ukraine, when the Crimean Peninsula also fell under Russian control.

The invasion Putin launched in February was seen as an effort to expand and cement those gains, while toppling the pro-Western regime of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But aid from the United States and European allies has allowed the Ukrainian resistance to beat back Russian offensives.

Putin’s annexation of the four regions was viewed as an attempt to formalize Russia’s gains, however paltry they have been. But even as Putin presided over a Kremlin ceremony, Russian troops were retreating from Lyman, a city in one of the regions now under Russian control.

Several hours after Putin's declaration, President Biden said from the White House that imposition of martial law was a sign of the Kremlin's increasing desperation. "I think Vladimir Putin finds himself in an incredibly difficult position," the president said, "and what it reflects to me is, it seems his only tool available to him is to brutalize individual citizens in Ukraine to try to intimidate them into capitulating."

Biden and European leaders have vowed time and again that they will never allow for a Ukrainian defeat.