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Why Putin Declared Martial Law in Parts of Ukraine: Desperation

Putin War in Ukraine Russia
Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin just declared martial law in four illegally annexed Ukrainian territories: Zaporizhzhya and Kherson provinces, and the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” Why did he do it and what does martial law entail?

Why Martial Law?

As to the first question, the answer is obvious. Russia is losing the war with Ukraine, as Russian troops are being pushed back from the territories they occupied after the invasion began on February 24. In particular, the Ukrainian Armed Forces appear to be on the verge of recapturing that part of Kherson province which is situated on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Russian administrators and civilians have already begun what appears to be a mass evacuation to safer terrain on the east bank. Putin obviously hopes that declaring martial law will somehow help him stop or slow down the Ukrainian advance and enable him to retain control over the areas he still occupies.

Just how might martial law help?

For starters, it will have no effect whatsoever on actual conditions on the battleground, where the Russian army has consistently demonstrated remarkable incompetence. Nor will it affect Russia’s genocidal bombardment of Ukrainian civilians and civilian targets. What martial law primarily does is what the Russian occupational authorities already do: enable them to crack down on dissent and political activity, mobilize resources for the war effort, pursue genocide, and engage in systematic rape. In a rogue country that acts illegally both at home and abroad, the fact that martial law technically legalizes ongoing repressive measures is pretty much meaningless.

But martial law does permit the authorities to introduce and intensify certain repressive and mobilizational measures:

1)    “Objects of economic, social, and cultural importance” may be moved, while civilian populations may be resettled in “safe areas.” Expect the Russians to dismantle factories and plants and ship them to Russia as well as to engage in the ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories by resettling Ukrainians in Russia.

2)    “Citizens” may be drafted for labor in support of defense, to help with emergencies, and so on. Expect the Russian authorities to grab civilians off the streets and force them to work without pay in dangerous sectors of the occupied territories.

3)    The “property of organizations and citizens” may be “taken” for defense needs. Expect the occupying authorities to confiscate, steal, and purloin everything they can lay their hands on. Expect corruption and contraband activities to flourish.

4)    People may be stopped and searched “whenever necessary.” Expect harassment of civilians to increase, thereby increasing their incentive to acquiesce in deportation to Russia.

Naturally, Putin would disagree with this assessment. Instead, he probably believes that such a mass mobilization of resources and people in defense of Mother Russia will lead to victory. The likelihood of that, however, is about as great as the ability of Hitler’s Volkssturm—the “people’s storm” mobilization of young and old, men and women in armed units in the last months of the war—to stop the Red Army in the east and the Allies in the west.

Will these measures help the authorities fight the burgeoning Ukrainian underground resistance movement? Only inasmuch as they will have legalized extant repressive measures—which is to say, no.

In the final analysis, the imposition of martial law will do little to nothing to stop the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian guerrillas. It will only add a legal veneer to Putin’s genocidal policies and enrich his cronies in the army and secret police. In that sense, martial law may even hasten the degradation of Russian rule in Ukraine.

President Biden’s assessment was on the mark: “I think that Vladimir Putin finds himself in an incredibly difficult position. And, what it reflects to me is, it seems his only tool available to him is to brutalize individual citizens in Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens, to try to intimidate them into capitulating. They’re not going to do that.”

Will Ukrainians even consider capitulation in light of Putin’s growing desperation? Will they let martial law change their strategy vis-à-vis Russia and the occupied territories? The questions are rhetorical, of course.

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

Written By

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”



  1. 403Forbidden

    October 19, 2022 at 9:35 pm

    Martial law is final step before the stupendous blow coming for Biden’s foot soldiers in Ukraine, or rather, Russian territory, in Donbass region.

    Now is the time to deal a fatal blow to biden’s warmongering campaign in Europe.

    Biden must be taught not to go to war against nuclear powers. All conflicts must be solved by negotiations and diplomacy, not mindless dogbarking and massive supplies of weaponry.

    • Law Abiding Citizen

      October 22, 2022 at 12:23 pm

      lol, Donbas is Ukraine. And biden’s soldiers are unfortunately in the halls of US legislature creating different ways to screw you and the economy. Biden has delayed actual help, only writing big checks to himself and his cronies.

  2. Yrral

    October 19, 2022 at 9:42 pm

    It obviously he did read that Republicans are advocating cutting funding for Ukrainain Google Kevin McCarthy Ukraine Aid

  3. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 20, 2022 at 12:21 am

    Putin is obviously getting increasingly desperate and desperation makes bad people unpredictably dangerous.

  4. pagar

    October 20, 2022 at 12:26 am

    Martial law should have been declared weeks ago as it’s a very well known fact CIA operatives are working at the front lines with ukro secret service and ukro armed forces.

    Note mysterious explosions here and there, in particular at the gaspipes and bridges.

    CIA (and DoD) agents are up
    to their gills getting involved in the fighting exactly as what they are doing in Syria. All along, it has been portrayed as ‘civil war’ but in reality,just an orchestrated action theater hatched or produced by deep state.

    After martial law is enforced, time to flush the agents or secret service from their hiding places. Obliterate Kyiv as a side measure and teach Biden to stay away from Europe.

  5. gre81

    October 20, 2022 at 5:26 am

    I’m no Putin fan not am I a Zelensky fan but Russia has already won this war. There is no way Ukraine can win. My concern is why no one is pushing for peace?

  6. Mr. P. Nesshead

    October 20, 2022 at 11:30 am

    “..dismantle factories and plants and ship them to Russia..”

    They’ll struggle to get any of their military equipment over the barrage bridge let alone start taking factories apart in a hurry.

    The best they can hope for is to put their looted household appliances in waterproof bags, to stop them getting wet as they swim across the Dnipro dodging artillery fire.

  7. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    Why is nobody pushing for peace?

    Because that’s not what Ukraine was designed for.

    The U. S. foreign policy blob wanted regime change and now that they’re not getting it… they want a bloody stump for Russia… problem is that it’s causing a bloody stump for our allies in Europe.

    Cut off the funding for this foreign policy disaster.

    The armchair warriors never saw a war they didn’t like.

    No more forever wars… wake up you stupid warmongers.

    That’s what the foreign policy elite want now:

    A forever “proxy” war in Ukraine until the last Ukrainian is dead (Biden admin. supposedly is gearing up for a TEN YEAR “proxy” war).

    The stupidity is only exceeded by their hubris & arrogance.

    Only exceeded by their willingness to drink forever war Kool-aid, and then pass on the propaganda as knowing wisdom.

    Too dumb… to know they’re stupid.

  8. Rick

    October 20, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    403, You continue to make a fool of yourself and Pootie. He can’t beat the West and he knows that his threats no longer work: we’ve seen what a shit army looks like with no kit. Hell, you can’t even supply winter uniforms after the thief took the money. Keep up the sniveling ], we need someone tp make fun of.

  9. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 1:36 pm

    The “Putin is desperate” meme is failing to take root.

    However, there is one possible last hurrah:

    The impending Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson region.

    The scuttlebutt is that Ukraine is putting everything they have into it… should it be turned back decisively, that will be the end of it.

    … then the meme “the Ukraine war is lost,” why send good money after bad, will take hold after the mid-terms, and public support in the U. S. will evaporate… not overnight… but like a slow leak in a balloon… over time… a month or two.

    Professor, “the Ukraine war is lost” meme is what you need to brace yourself for… a rude awakening I’m sure… given all your prior writings.

  10. AJP1960

    October 20, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    Why should Ukraine sue for peace? They didn’t invade Russia, Russia invaded them and they would like their legal territory back.

    Were they to sue for peace it would demonstrate that the West is weak and this could open other European countries (the continent not the political body – the EU) to Russian invasion.

    Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Finland, for example

  11. Tamerlane

    October 20, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    The “West” is not the ally of Ukraine, AJP1960, nor is Ukraine the ally of the United States.

    Ukraine must sue for peace, and should sooner rather than later, because in the real world, the strong countries do as they will, and the weak ones bear what they must, and while Ukraine is serving as the west’s proxy client state temporarily, it lacks the capacity to win, and moreover, it lacks the capacity to survive should it “win” conventionally.

    None of those countries you mentioned would be invaded, as all of them are American allies.

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