On Wednesday October 19th Russian President Vladimir Putin declared martial law in Russian occupied Ukraine, as alarm grew in Moscow about faltering progress in the 8 month conflict. During a Security Council meeting Putin signed a decree to implement martial law in the occupied Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, accusing Ukraine of sending sabotage groups into Russian territory.

Words by Theo Dyer

The decree granted Russian-backed governors in Ukraine power to declare mobilizations and restrict travel, as well as imposing movement restrictions in occupied Crimea and Russian regions bordering Ukraine. It was signed amid the backdrop of Russian losses in the southern Kherson and eastern Luhansk and Kharkiv provinces. During September and October, Ukraine recaptured more than 2,000 square miles of land, prompting Putin to declare a partial mobilization on September 21st to strengthen the depleted Russian frontlines.

Martial law is the latest in a series of escalatory actions by Putin in response to battlefield losses, including nuclear threats to both Ukraine and NATO. Additionally, Moscow started utilizing Iranian drones to attack Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure, in retaliation for an explosion on the Kerch Strait bridge from Russia to Crimea which hindered Russia’s Kherson supply lines. Recent failures have granted Kremlin hardliners greater influence, with the promotion of “General Armageddon” Surovikin to commander of the war reflecting Putin’s desperation to show success to his disgruntled inner circle and public. 

Putin initiated the war in Ukraine on February 24th, declaring a “special military operation” necessary to prevent NATO interference and defend ethnic Russians from genocide. By formally recognizing the Moscow-backed breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Putin created a pretext to intervene militarily in Ukraine by responding to their claims of genocide. Whilst the invasion initially sought to “denazify” and overthrow Ukrainian President Zelensky’s pro-Western government, minimal progress near Kyiv prompted Moscow to reorient towards capturing the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) region.

After capturing the entire Luhansk province on July 3rd, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov declared Moscow’s war aims included capturing the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces it partially occupied. These two areas are vital for Moscow as they form a southern front to pressure the Odessa, Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk provinces, as well as providing a land bridge for Crimean logistics- especially significant due to the damaged Kerch bridge. Should Russian troops advance past Kherson along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Moscow could deprive Ukraine of sea access and billions in agricultural export revenues. 

After a successful offensive which removed Russian forces from Kharkiv, Kyiv strengthened its Kherson offensive through rapid advances towards Kherson city, liberating dozens of settlements and prompting Russian soldiers to retreat towards the city or across the Dnieper river. Surovikin’s October 18th announcement that civilians would be evacuated across the Dnieper reflected Moscow’s fears of a humiliating defeat and further infighting. Losing Kherson city and positions on the Dnieper’s right bank would be a strategic disaster, severely limiting any progress towards Odessa.

In response to its recent losses, Moscow declared Ukraine’s four occupied regions as under its nuclear umbrella, meaning a hypothetical loss of Kherson could warrant a nuclear strike in “self-defense”. Whilst Putin’s nuclear threats are most likely sabre-rattling, an escalation in fighting remains certain in the highly contested Kherson province.

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