What is martial law? Meaning, why has Vladimir Putin declared it in Ukraine - and what does it mean for Russia

The Russian-backed leaders of illegally annexed Ukrainian territories will be granted emergency powers

Following a series of sham referendums, Russian soldiers illegally annexed the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Putin declared martial law in those areas as he warned of a Ukrainian assault on Kherson, a move which has been dismissed as a “propaganda show” by Ukraine.

In March, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared a state of martial law following Russia’s invasion of the country he leads.

But what is martial law? And what exactly does it mean for people living in Ukraine?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is martial law?

Declaring a state of martial law means granting military bodies and armed forces authority over an area.

It is usually implemented when civil authorities - like police forces and other emergency services - become overwhelmed during emergency situations.

Designed to be imposed only on a temporary basis, martial law has been brought in around the world in the past, in response to foreign invasions, riots and natural disasters.

A boy holds a toy rifle as his friends adjust a Ukrainian flag hanging from a tree by the roadside in Dubove, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)A boy holds a toy rifle as his friends adjust a Ukrainian flag hanging from a tree by the roadside in Dubove, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
A boy holds a toy rifle as his friends adjust a Ukrainian flag hanging from a tree by the roadside in Dubove, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Military forces may be deployed for various purposes such as to stop looting, maintain order, impose a curfew, and secure buildings of the government.

Typically, martial law is accompanied by the introduction of curfews, and the suspension of civil laws in favour of military law and the imposition of military justice on civilians.

This means that civilians found defying martial law may be subjected to court-martial.

Why has Putin declared martial law?

When President Zelensky declared martial law over Ukraine back in March, it was a move designed to help the military defend territories being encroached upon by Russian forces. But history has shown that martial law declarations can also be used for nefarious purposes.

Martial law can be used by governments to enforce their rule over the public; martial law was declared in response to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China, for instance, allowing the military to clear out demonstrators.

The Russian-backed leaders of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia will be granted emergency powers under Putin’s newly imposed martial law. It is the latest development in a war in which Russia has found itself on the defensive, and comes as the Russian leader strives to tighten his grip on Ukraine’s four illegally acquired regions.

“We are working on solving very complex, large-scale tasks to ensure a reliable future for Russia, the future of our people.” he said during a televised address. But there are concerns that the declaration of martial law will restrict Ukrainian nationals’ freedom of movement, and crack down on criticism of the Russian government.

According to official documents issued by the Kremlin outlining the law, itt will give law enforcement authorities the right to carry out “mobilisation measures in the economic sphere”, as well as protect “the population and territories from natural and man-made emergencies.”

Each region’s law enforcement authorities have been given three days to make recommendations on how they want to use the new powers.

What does Ukraine’s existing martial law look like?

The exact specifics of martial law differ from country to country, and the restrictions in place under such declarations can be tweaked and set by leaders at any given time.

For example, the last time martial law was declared in Ukraine was in 2018, in 10 regions mostly bordering Russia in an attempt to strengthen the country’s defences against flaring tensions.

For 30 days, all Russian men between 16 and 60 were barred from entering Ukraine, for fear that “private” armies could form within its borders.

In March 2022, at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky called for people with military experience to “join the defence of Ukraine” and asked for blood donations to help wounded soldiers.

He has also said: “We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country. Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities.

“We will lift sanctions on all citizens of Ukraine who are ready to defend our country as part of territorial defence with weapons in hands.”

In response to Putin’s own martial law impositions, the Ukrainian government has instructed locals not to comply with evacuation orders given under the pretence of Ukrainian forces starting an assault on Kherson.