Vladimir Putin declares martial law across illegally annexed Ukrainian regions

Vladimir Putin speaking on a video call in Russia.
Vladimir Putin has granted martial law powers to four Ukrainian regions which Russia has illegally annexed. Credit: AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared martial law across the four Ukrainian regions which Moscow illegally annexed in September.

He didn’t immediately spell out the powers that martial law would grant, but they could include restrictions on travel and public gatherings, tighter censorship and broader powers for law enforcement agencies.

On Wednesday, the Russian president said in an address that the order "will be immediately sent to the Federation Council for approval".

News of the decree comes after Russian forces have launched mass evacuations of civilians from the southern Ukrainian city, Kherson, as Kyiv's counteroffensive continues to make gains against the Kremlin.

Kherson was one of the first major cities taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces after Moscow's invasion began in February.

More than 250,000 people live within the city, which contains key industries and a major port on the Dnieper River.

The battle for Kherson is a pivotal moment for both Ukraine and Russia heading into winter, when cold and difficult conditions could freeze frontlines until the spring.

The city itself is surrounded by a region which bears the same name, and is among the areas now claimed by Russia.

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In recent days small groups of people have been seen leaving the city, but those numbers have since grown.

On Russian state television, residents from Kherson could be seen crowding on the Dnieper’s banks, many with small children, to cross by boats further east into Russian-controlled territory.

State media in Moscow reported that text messages were sent out, warning residents to expect shelling and that buses were being prepared for them to leave.

Leaflets also told evacuees that they could take the weight equivalent of two large suitcases, medicines and food for a few days.

Moscow-backed authorities have said evacuations from occupied territories are voluntary, but in many cases the only routes out are to Russia.

The Russian appointed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, has urged residents to evacuate. Credit: AP

“It’s better to evacuate people in case the fighting starts to involve artillery shelling and bombing of the city, and that’s what we are doing now,” said Vladimir Saldo, the Russian appointed head of the Kherson region.

Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, called the evacuation “a propaganda show” and said Russia’s claims that Kyiv’s forces might shell Kherson were “a rather primitive tactic, given that the Armed Forces do not fire at Ukrainian cities".

Ukrainian forces have rolled back Russian positions on the river’s west bank in recent weeks, and the region’s Moscow-installed administrators now appear to be hoping that the Dnieper’s wide, deep waters will act as a natural barrier against the Ukrainian advance.

On Tuesday, Russia’s new commander for Ukraine described the situation facing the Kremlin's forces in the Kherson region as “very difficult".

Russian bloggers have interpreted General Sergei Surovikin's comments as a warning to a possible pullback of Moscow's forces.