The Russian leader also imposed restrictions in over two dozen areas in Russia, signaling an attempt to crack down on dissent at home.
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Destroyed vehicles on Wednesday in Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, which has been under constant assault by Russian forces.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
Published Oct. 19, 2022Updated Oct. 20, 2022, 3:32 a.m. ET
KYIV, Ukraine — President Vladimir V. Putin declared martial law in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine on Wednesday, but in a telling sign that his real concerns may lie far closer to home, he also moved to put the economy on a wartime footing and imposed restrictions in more than two dozen areas across Russia.
With battlefield losses mounting in Ukraine and the Russian public simmering over an unpopular military conscription order, Mr. Putin’s actions appeared to be less a show of strength than a sign of disarray.
As a practical matter, Moscow has only tenuous control of the eastern Ukrainian regions where it imposed martial law, weeks after illegally annexing them. As of late last month, the Russian Army controlled most of Luhansk and Kherson, but only about half of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk. And on Wednesday, Russian officials ordered the evacuation of thousands of people in Kherson and said it might move the offices of its puppet government there across the Dnipro River to a safer position.
In imposing the new restrictions, Mr. Putin spoke of the embattled regions as if they were indisputably Russian territory.
“I signed a decree on the introduction of martial law in these four constituent entities of the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said in a meeting of his Security Council. “In addition, in the current situation, I consider it necessary to give additional powers to the leaders of all Russian regions.”
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia speaking to members of the Security Council on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Gavriil GrigorovSome of the changes were aimed at reorienting the Russian economy toward war. In border regions as well as in Crimea, for example, the local authorities can now “mobilize the economy to meet the needs of the army,” the order said. But the Kremlin also paved the way for still stricter control of the population.
“Putin has to prepare the country for much harder times, and he needs to mobilize resources,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, said in a phone interview.
In Ukraine, the martial law order will allow the authorities to impose curfews, seize property, forcibly resettle residents, imprison undocumented immigrants, establish checkpoints and detain people for up to 30 days.
In Russia, the restrictions stopped short of martial law, and as with many Russian laws, their provisions are open to broad interpretation.
The new law, for example, allows for the suspension of the activities of political parties, public organizations and religious groups, but also of any activity deemed to undermine the defense and security of the Russian Federation. It also allows governors to set up restrictions on entry and exit from their region.
“In general, all this looks not so much like a struggle with an external enemy, as much as an attempt to prevent the ripening revolution within the country,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who now lives in Israel, wrote in a post on the messaging app Telegram.
Mr. Putin said the Kremlin had no choice but to crack down.
The Ukrainian government, he claimed, is “trying to create a bandit underground, sending sabotage groups into our territory.” He cited the recent truck-bombing at a vital bridge connecting Russia to the Crimea Peninsula, the Ukrainian territory Russia seized in 2014.
But some analysts viewed the orders as intended less to safeguard Russian territory than to lay a path for the difficult days ahead.
A checkpoint in Armyansk, which borders Ukraine’s Kherson region, in Russia-controlled Crimea, on Wednesday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesDara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said more changes were likely. “I suspect that more special economic measures will be the next thing announced,” she said on Twitter. “The state needs more resources directed to the military.”
Some regional officials — including the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin — appeared to be taking pains to offer reassurances. “At present, no measures are being introduced to limit the normal rhythm of the city’s life,” Mr. Sobyanin wrote on his Telegram channel.
And despite the new power granted them by Mr. Putin, the regional governors of Kursk, Krasnodar and Voronezh said no entry or exit restrictions would be imposed.
But many Russians are sure to see a warning message in the martial law imposed in Ukraine, the first time that Moscow has declared martial law since World War II, analysts say.
“People are worried that they will soon close the borders, and the siloviki” — the strong men close to Mr. Putin in the Kremlin — “will do what they want,” Ms. Stanovaya said.
On Tuesday, the newly appointed commander of the Russian invasion, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, acknowledged that his army’s position in Kherson was “already quite difficult” and appeared to suggest that a tactical retreat might be necessary. General Surovikin said he was ready to make “difficult decisions” about military deployments, but did not say more about what those might be.
In a signal that the faltering invasion of Ukraine has eroded Moscow’s influence elsewhere, Russia has recently redeployed critical military hardware and troops from Syria, according to three senior officials based in the Middle East.
Russia, which has been a dominant military force in Syria since 2015 and helps maintain the government’s grip on power, still keeps a sizable presence there. But the change could herald shifts in the balance of power in one of the world’s most complicated conflict zones, and may lead Israel — Syria’s enemy — to rethink its stance toward the Ukraine conflict.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed head of the Kherson region, told Russian state TV that he estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people would be evacuated in the next six days. Videos released on Russian news media showed lines of civilians apparently boarding ferries at a river port to evacuate to the eastern bank of the Dnipro.
A destroyed Russian vehicle in the Kherson region this month, as Ukrainian forces continued to liberate territory in southern Ukraine.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York TimesRussia’s ability to hold the western side of the river may be particularly sensitive in Moscow. Last month, American officials briefed on highly sensitive intelligence said that Mr. Putin had thrust himself more directly into strategic planning for the war in Ukraine, including by rejecting requests from commanders on the ground that they be allowed to pull back troops across the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian officials dismissed the Russian pronouncements as a ruse and a “propaganda show,” and said that their real audience might be back home, where the Kremlin has been trying to shore up support for the war.
The Russian Army has been distributing leaflets in the city of Kherson encouraging residents to flee across the Dnipro, according to photographs posted on social media. One shows parents with a small boy, all smiling, with a Russian flag in the background. “Save your family, move to the eastern bank,” the text says.
Another leaflet said evacuation routes were open to the occupied Crimean Peninsula and two provinces in southern Russia, Krasnodar and Stavropol, and suggested that Ukrainians “take your children and relatives!”
Nataliya Humeniuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian southern military command, said that under the guise of evacuating civilians from danger, the Russian government was, in fact, continuing its practice of deporting Ukrainian adults and children from occupied territory to Russia. Rights groups have said that Russia is forcibly assimilating deported Ukrainian children.
Although Russia claimed it was moving civilians to keep them safe from Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have been slowed by Russian troops after weeks of gains, with ferocious fighting playing out in the Kherson region.
Ukraine’s troops have been taking casualties from well-organized Russian forces as they advance mile by mile over open fields with little cover. When Ukrainian troops set out to capture a road junction near the village of Duchany early in the offensive, for example, two soldiers in a company with the 98th Infantry Brigade were killed and more than a dozen others were wounded, soldiers said in interviews.
The Ukrainian company had driven in a half-dozen armored personnel carriers with infantry riding on top, since the unit had too few vehicles to fit all soldiers in the armored interiors, one Ukrainian fighter, Lt. Dmytro Kovtalyuk, said.
Ukrainian troops in a trench that was part of a network taken from Russian forces during a southern counteroffensive this month.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York TimesThe Russians had fanned out into tree lines about 1,000 yards from the road on both sides and opened fire with anti-tank missiles, while a Russian attack helicopter buzzed overhead, firing at the column with its machine gun.
By the time the company reached the junction, the Russians had retreated, leaving empty bunkers and trenches. The Ukrainians threw in hand grenades — “just to check,” Lieutenant Kovtalyuk said — then climbed into the Russian positions and used them to defend against a counterattack with tanks that came a few hours later.
Ukrainian commanders are advancing in what they call a tactic of waves. After a unit captures new positions, such as the Russian trenches at the road junction, another unit, the second wave, moves past it in another effort to advance.
“We were counting on them running away, but they didn’t,” said Pvt. Andriy Bezpalko, one of the soldiers who fought in the battle for the junction. “They shot back.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Neil MacFarquhar from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev from Berlin, Valeriya Safronova from Vienna, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Eric Nagourney from New York and Maria Varenikova from Kyiv.