Putin imposes martial law in annexed regions as Kherson evacuation begins

Moscow has ordered the decree to ‘meet the needs of the armed forces and other state security bodies’ as Kyiv’s troops close in on strategic city

Evacuation Kherson
Ukrainian soldiers on the Kherson front line.Metin Aktas / getty

Kyiv’s counter-offensive to retake the strategically important port city of Kherson in southern Ukraine is nearing its objective. General Sergei Surovikin, Moscow’s newly installed head of military operations in Ukraine, hinted during his first interview since assuming the post that the evacuation of civilians from Kherson is imminent. “The army will ensure the safe departure of the population within the resettlement program being prepared by the government,” Surovikin said, adding that future plans regarding the regional capital will “depend on the emerging military-tactical situation.” The Russian general also said that the situation in Ukraine is “tense,” particularly around occupied Kherson, which along with Mariupol is the most significant city captured by Russian forces since the Kremlin’s invasion was launched in February.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday imposed martial law on the four Ukrainian regions Moscow illegally annexed in September - Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – and instructed the Kremlin’s Security Council to beef up security measures in Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and other border regions as Ukrainian forces advance toward Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia does not exercise complete authority in any of the four recently annexed territories and Putin has asked his prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, to chair a committee to unify control over the four regions. “We need to continue working to improve coordination,” Putin said as Russian troops began preparations for the civilian evacuation of Kherson as Kyiv’s forces close in on the city on two fronts.

Under Russian legislation, martial law gives Moscow the power to restrict the movement of people - in this instance in eight Russian provinces bordering Ukraine - prohibit strikes, demonstrations and any kind of political activity and to seize property. It also allows Russia to detain foreigners from countries it is at war with in prisons and camps, “in accordance with the principles and norms generally recognized by international law.”

The chairman of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said on Tuesday that the parliament would prepare accommodation for an evacuation Moscow has described as “voluntary.” A few days earlier, the head of the military-civilian collaborationist administration in Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, said that residents of the regional capital could be evacuated to Crimea and the Russian provinces of Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol. Saldo said during a television interview that between 50,000 and 60,000 people could be evacuated in the coming days and that entry into the region by civilians is now prohibited as he appeared to indicate that an evacuation was already underway with residents making their way to boats to be transferred to the Russian-held eastern bank of the Dnieper River.

Surovikin has justified an evacuation due to the threat posed by Ukrainian forces advancing on a nearby dam and strategic bridges. “Food delivery is difficult and there are certain problems with water and electricity supply. All this not only significantly complicates the lives of citizens, but also creates a direct threat to their lives,” Surovikin said, while warning that the occupying forces “have not ruled out making difficult decisions,” with regard to the local population. According to Russian reporters in the area, pamphlets have been distributed in Kherson urging residents to flee: “Ukrainian forces will bombard residential buildings. The buses will leave from 7am from Rechport to the eastern shore.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that “reality can hurt” after the Moscow-backed regional authorities announced the evacuation while the head of the Kyiv Presidential Administration, Andrii Yermak, accused Russia of staging a “propaganda show” and of spreading panic among civilians by warning of “imminent Ukrainian attacks on civilian infrastructure.”

“Less than a month has passed since the pompous announcement of Kherson annexation and solemn concert on the Red Square, as the self-proclaimed ‘city administration’ ceremoniously evacuates in anticipation of [Ukrainian] justice. Reality can hurt if you live in a fictional fantasy world,” Podolyak wrote on social media.

Ukrainian authorities have stated that thousands of residents of the Kherson region have been forcibly relocated to Russia. Around 50% of the province’s population of 500,000 people have fled their homes in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, according to the Ukrainian General Staff in the area, the vast majority of them heading westwards towards unoccupied Ukraine and the European Union.

Ukraine attempts to retake Zaporizhzhia plant

The Armed Forces of Ukraine launched a counter-offensive against occupied territory on the eastern and southern fronts last July and have since then made steady progress towards Kherson from the northeast and south. Zelensky’s government sees the recapture of Kherson as the most important military objective of the war, as it is the westernmost point reached by Russian forces and also affords control of the canal that serves as Crimea’s main source of water and the illegally annexed territory’s electricity supply. It is also the only provincial capital Moscow managed to take during the initial stages of the invasion, and it holds symbolic value as the scene of a Ukrainian retreat in March in one of Kyiv’s most significant defeats of the war.

The main obstacle facing Ukrainian forces attempting to drive Russian troops out of Kherson is the occupier’s defenses on the Dnieper River, a natural barrier that has been heavily fortified by Moscow. Overnight on Tuesday, Ukrainian forces attempted to regain control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been in Russian hands since the early stages of the war but continues to be operated by Ukrainian personnel. The attack was beaten off by Russian troops guarding the plant, which is Europe’s largest and has been damaged by shelling during the conflict, leading to international concerns about the potential for a nuclear disaster.

“After bombarding the city [of Enerhodar, 50 km to the southwest of Zaporizhzhia], they launched an amphibious assault that included an attempt to take control of the Zaporizhzhia power plant,” the Moscow-installed governor of the region, Vladimir Rogov, told the RIA news agency, adding the attack “had been repelled.” According to Russian sources, Ukrainian troops were sent across the Dnieper from the southern end of Zaporizhzhia in 30 boats, the latest in a string of unsuccessful attempts by Kyiv to land of soldiers on the Russian-held eastern bank.

Von der Leyen: Russian bombing campaign is a war crime

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on Wednesday termed the air strikes being launched by Moscow over the past 10 days against civilian and energy infrastructure targets in Ukraine as a “war crime.” In a speech to the European Parliament to lay out the commission’s plans to tackle the energy crisis, Von der Leyen said that “Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, with the clear objective of cutting off men, women [and] children of water, electricity and heating with winter coming – these are acts of pure terror. And we have to call it as such.”

Von der Leyen added that Moscow’s bombing campaign, which Putin has justified as retaliation for the sabotage attack that partially destroyed the Kerch Bridge in Crimea on October 8, “marks a new chapter in an already very cruel war.”

“These are war crimes,” the EC president said, stating that Europe will provide aid to Ukraine “for as long as is necessary.”

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