The Kremlin has said it is not planning to institute martial law in Russia as rumors have spread that the government is preparing for a clampdown tied to its invasion of Ukraine.
Thousands of Russians have begun fleeing the country amid unsourced reports that the borders could close as soon as this weekend after an extraordinary session of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, scheduled for Friday.
The body often signs off on major foreign policy and security decisions and recently gave Putin the authority to use his military overseas before the invasion of Ukraine.
“These are hoaxes,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, in the first official reaction to suggestions that Russia could institute martial law. “These are nothing but hoaxes published on social networks, which citizens send to one another. One should be very careful about information and not to fall victim to rumors and fakes.”
There have been no confirmed reports that the Kremlin is planning to introduce the regime, which could include border closures, military censorship and other measures to control and mobilize the country of 140 million in its conflict with the west. The rumors have been spread by some western officials, including a top Ukrainian presidential adviser, but not one in the Russian government.
But the recent unpredictability of Vladimir Putin, who has begun a war of aggression with Ukraine that some predicted he would avoid, has spooked urban elites and set off a small-scale exodus from Russia’s major cities.
“A lot of people are now writing that the purpose of this meeting is to adopt anti-crisis laws. But there is another possibility – the approval of martial law,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm. “Frankly speaking, without wanting to stir things up, I think this scenario is the more logical one.”
Generally, the situation in Russia, which is under tremendous economic pressure from western sanctions, suggests a further crackdown and prolongation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think it’s going to get worse,” said Kadri Liik, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “For Putin, the incentive is to escalate. I have gone all in. I cannot see him modifying his war because that would be a loss in his eyes. Any chance to come to an agreement with western powers had probably passed, she said.
That appeared to be borne out by the result of Putin’s talks with Emmanuel Macron on Thursday. Putin told the French president that he was determined to press on with his attack “until the end,” according to an official in Macron’s office.
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin parties in the Duma presented a bill that would forcibly conscript opposition protesters to fight in Russia’s “special operation” in the Donbas region, the Russian longhand for its war in Ukraine.
It was not immediately clear whether the bill, co-sponsored by the MP Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged poisoner of Russian FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko, would be met with a serious response. Other draft legislation, such as new penalties of 15 years in prison for “fakes” about the Russian army in Ukraine, appear more likely to pass.
Thursday also brought a wave of news that Russia was increasingly sinking into international isolation, as western companies continued to abandon the market and local government increasingly clamped down to prevent money from fleeing the country.
In a decision that will affect 15,000 workers, the furniture giant Ikea said it would halt its operations in Russia, stopping the import and export of goods and winding down its retail operation, prompting shoppers to flood its store on the outskirts of Moscow.
“The war has had a huge human impact already. It is also resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions,” the company said. “For all of these reasons, the company groups have decided to temporarily pause Ikea operations in Russia.”
The grim economic prospects have already hit local businesses hard and prompted some entrepreneurs to flee the country.
“There’s no future for our children here if Putin stays in power,” said the owner of an advertising services company with 100 employees. He was leaving for Armenia with his wife and two sons. “If Putin continues to control the country, it’s obvious for us that we don’t want to stay here, 100%. And we can only stay if he is overthrown. If there is a U-turn in politics, then we can stay.”
The Kremlin has swiftly capitalized on the war to further dominate the information space, blocking key independent media outlets in moves that would normally lead to large protests.
Echo of Moscow, a Russian independent news station that has broadcast uninterrupted since 1991, announced that it would dissolve on Thursday after refusing to comply with Russian censorship rules that require reporting on the war in Ukraine to only use official military and Kremlin sources.
And TV Rain, the country’s top independent news television station, temporarily ended its broadcasts on Thursday after falling foul of similar rules.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism