Moscow 'plotting to seal off Crimea' to stop 'panicking Russians' from fleeing
Ukrainian intelligence officials have claimed the Kremlin is preparing to seal off Crimea in order to block the exit of any "panicked" Russians trying to flee.
In 2014, Russia seized Ukraine's southern peninsula of Crimea, an area of significant strategic importance in an invasion which marked what one Western intelligence official described as the "creeping militarisation" of the Black Sea.
While Nato and the international community deemed the annexation illegal, they failed to stop it and Moscow has since established two federal "subjects" in the area - the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.
Eight years on and Putin mounted a full scale invasion of Ukraine, in an apparent attempt to annex more land in the east of the country, specifically the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
However, Western officials believe the invasion is not going to plan, with Moscow frustrated by the lack of progress. The war has sparked numerous protests across Russia.
On Wednesday, the intelligence department of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence claimed in a Facebook post that the Kremlin plans to block bridges, ferries and air connections from the mainland to Crimea in order to prevented panicking Russians from fleeing the region.
The post said Russia is now holding 600,000 Russian citizens "hostage" who are "illegally on the peninsula".
The statement said: "Putin's authorities are trying to react to panic moods among Russian citizens who illegally moved to Ukrainian Crimea after February 2014.
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"The occupants seek to stop the flow of refugees from the peninsula."
It added that families of Russian officers and officials in Sevastopol have "urgently" sold real estate and are removing assets from the peninsula.
These claims have not been verified, however it is clear that there is some anger aimed at Putin's invasion in the Russian homeland.
On 4 March, Moscow enacted two laws that criminalised independent war reporting and protesting the war, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
Three days after those laws came into force police reportedly detained more than 4,300 protesters in 56 different cities, according to the OVD-Info independent protest monitoring group.
Some Russian state-controlled media carried short reports about the protests but they did not feature high in news bulletins.
Russia's RIA news agency said the Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, adjoining the Kremlin, had been "liberated" by police, who had arrested some participants of an unsanctioned protest against the military operation in Ukraine.
The last Russian protests with a similar number of arrests were in January 2021, when thousands demanded the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny after he was arrested on returning from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning.
In recent days, there has been mounting speculation as to the scale of Russian troop losses, with one Nato source estimating that up to 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in the past month.
The anonymous officer said that battlefield casualties suffered by Russia are thought to total between 30,000 and 40,000 since Putin launched his invasion on February 24.
On Thursday, British military intelligence said that "Russian forces have almost certainly suffered thousands of casualties during their invasion of Ukraine."
In an effort to bolster their troops, Russia is likely looking at bringing reservists and conscription, further intelligence has suggested.
An update added: "Russia is likely now looking to mobilise its reservist and conscript manpower, as well as private military companies and foreign mercenaries, to replace these considerable losses."
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