Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin introduced martial law on Wednesday in four Ukrainian regions he says Russia has annexed as some residents of the occupied city of Kherson left by boat following warnings of a looming assault.
Russian state TV broadcast the images of people fleeing Kherson, which portrayed the exodus – from the right to left bank of the River Dnipro – as an attempt to clear the city of civilians before it became a combat zone.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the local Russia-backed administration, made a video appeal after Russian forces in the area were driven back by 20-30 km (13-20 miles) in the last few weeks. They risk being pinned against the western bank of the 2,200-km (1367 miles) -long Dnipro river that bisects Ukraine.
In a move which looked designed to help Russia firm its grip on the Ukrainian regions it partly occupies – including Kherson – Putin told his Security Council he was introducing martial law in them.
Beyond much tighter security measures on the ground, it was unclear what the immediate impact of that would be.
Kyiv, which does not recognize Moscow’s self-styled annexations of the four regions, derided the move.
“‘Martial law’ implementation on the occupied territories by Russia should be considered only as a pseudo-legalization of (the) looting of Ukrainians’ property,” tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser.
“This does not change anything for Ukraine: we continue the liberation and deoccupation of our territories.”
Eight months after being invaded, Ukraine is prosecuting major counter-offensives in the east and south to try to take as much territory as it can before winter after routing Russian forces in some areas.
The conflict has killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverised Ukrainian cities, shaken the global economy and revived Cold War-era geopolitical fissures.
Putin also issued a decree restricting movement in and out of eight regions adjoining Ukraine and ordered the creation of a special coordinating council under Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to step up the faltering war effort.
Kherson is the biggest population centre Moscow has seized and held since it began its “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian president’s office, accused Russia of laying on a propaganda show there.
“The Russians are trying to scare the people of Kherson with fake newsletters about the shelling of the city by our army, and also arrange a propaganda show with evacuation,” Yermak wrote on the Telegram messaging app.