KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the command posts of his forces fighting in Ukraine for the second time in two months, officials said Tuesday, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made his latest trip to positions near the front lines.
The visits – on different days and in different provinces – sought to bolster soldiers’ resolve as the war approaches its 14th month and as Kiev prepares for a possible counterattack with Western-supplied weapons.
In a Kremlin video broadcast by Russian state television, Putin can be seen arriving by helicopter at the command post of Russian forces in southern Ukraine’s Kherson province and then flying to the headquarters of the Russian National Guard in Luhansk province in the eastern part of the country. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the visits took place on Monday.
Dressed in a dark suit, Putin attended the briefings at both of his stations with military brass ears. The locations of the military headquarters have not been made public, so it is impossible to gauge how close they are to the front line. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified either.
Zelenskyi made his last trip on Tuesday to Avdiivka, the eastern city of Donetsk province, where heavy fighting is taking place, his office said. He heard first-hand accounts of the battles and awarded medals.
Zelensky’s visits to areas hit by Russia’s full-scale invasion intensified last month as he moved around the country, often by train. As with Putin, the Ukrainian’s wartime ways are usually made public only after he has already left a territory.
While official coverage of Putin’s trip has mostly depicted him in a formal and ceremonial setting, photos released by Zelenskyi’s office show the Ukrainian president taking selfies with soldiers, eating cake with them and drinking from paper cups.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has largely stalled amid heavy fighting in the east, particularly around the city of Bakhmut in the Donets region, which has seen the longest and bloodiest battle to date for 8 1/2 months.
The provinces of Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia were illegally annexed by Russia in September after Ukraine and the West dismissed local referendums as a sham. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mihajlo Podoljak sharply criticized Putin’s trip, accusing him of “degradation” and the author of “mass murders” during the war.
Most of Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia, as well as parts of Luhansk Oblast, remained under Ukrainian control then and now. In November, Russian forces surrendered territory in Kherson Province, including the region’s eponymous capital.
In a related development, the Moscow-appointed governor of the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast, Denis Pushilin, went to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and won pledges of support from President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally.
Analysts say Pussilin’s visit was probably approved by the Kremlin and was an attempt to remind Kiev that Belarus was joining Russia in the war.
“The Kremlin is forcing Minsk to take a more active part in the war to pressure Ukraine by threatening to join Belarus,” Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said in a telephone interview. “It is clear that Pussilin’s visit to Minsk coincided with Putin’s tour of the occupied Ukrainian regions and is intended to demonstrate that the Belarusian threat has not abated.”
During his visits, Putin congratulated the military divisions on the occasion of the Orthodox Easter celebrated on Sunday and presented them with icons. Speaking to senior officers at his Kherson headquarters, Putin handed them a replica of an Orthodox icon he said belonged to a 19th-century Russian general.
The senior officers present at the meetings reflected which party currently supports Putin. Major-General Mikhail Teplinsky, the head of the Russian airborne troops, was one of the top generals of the Kherson base.
Teplinsky, a rookie officer who rose from lieutenant to chief of the elite military branch, is known for being popular with his troops. Last fall, however, he was temporarily relieved of his duties amid military backlash. He was reinstated this year and his meeting with Putin signaled his renewed support.
A senior officer who welcomed Putin to the Luhansk region, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, was also relieved of his commanding post in northeastern Ukraine after he was blamed for a hasty Russian retreat from parts of Kharkiv province against Ukraine. counterattack in September. Lapin was later named chief of staff of the ground forces, and his meeting with Putin signaled his confidence in the president.
Putin’s trips come as Ukraine prepares for a new counteroffensive to retake occupied territories. Last month, he visited the Russian-held port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The city was occupied by Russian troops in May 2022, after two months of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian officials have said they are exhausting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine as they prepare for a counterattack. Zelensky argued that Russia’s capture of Bakhmut could allow Putin to begin building international support for a deal that would require Ukraine to make compromises to end the war.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told the AP news agency that Ukraine’s allies have helped the government assemble materials for a counterattack, including heavy armored vehicles and ammunition.
Meanwhile, according to Zelensky’s office, at least three civilians were killed and 11 wounded in Ukraine between Monday and Tuesday. Most of the victims were in Donbass, the eastern region consisting of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, the agency said. Six were wounded in the artillery fire in the city of Herszon.
Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press Writer in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.
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