Ukraine’s president visits combat zone; Putin rallies forces

Ukraine’s president visits combat zone; Putin rallies forces

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday visited an eastern city at the center of some of the most intense fighting in Russia’s nearly 10-month war, while Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the “courage and self-denial”. . his frontline troops in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy met with military officials in Bakhmut, the scene of “bitter fighting” between the Ukrainian defenders and the invading Russian forces, the president’s office said. The city, about 600 kilometers east of Kyiv, has remained in Ukrainian hands, thwarting Moscow’s goal of conquering the entire Donbass region of Ukraine.

As the Kremlin tries to press ahead with its stalled invasion and Ukrainians burned their furniture to keep warm, Putin saluted his country’s military and security agencies during a Kremlin ceremony. Among other things, he presented awards to the Moscow-appointed heads of four regions of Ukraine, which Russia illegally annexed in September.

“Our country has often faced challenges and defended its sovereignty,” Putin said. “Now Russia faces such a challenge again. Soldiers, officers and volunteers show outstanding examples of courage and self-denial at the front.”

Russia’s ground invasion, which began on February 24, has lost momentum in recent months. The annexed provinces – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhia – remain fiercely contested. The capture of Bakhmut, located in Donetsk, would split Ukraine’s supply lines and open a path for Russian forces to advance towards the cities, which are important Ukrainian strongholds in the province.

Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reportedly leading the attack in Bakhmut. Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian-backed separatists had controlled parts of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk since 2014. The two provinces together form the Donbass.

The Kremlin released a video speech by Putin ahead of Tuesday’s award ceremony. In it, he praised the security personnel deployed in Ukraine’s illegally annexed regions, saying that “the Russian citizens living there count on you to protect them.”

“Your duty is to do everything necessary to ensure your safety and the protection of your rights and freedoms,” said the Russian head of state on the national holiday, recalling the work of the security authorities.

He promised to reinforce the units stationed in the annexed areas with more equipment and personnel. The regions are under pressure from a Ukrainian counter-offensive and from Russian attacks on unoccupied towns and cities.

Putin, a KGB veteran, also called on counterintelligence to step up efforts to “fail activities by foreign espionage services and quickly track down traitors, spies and saboteurs.”

In Ukraine, the war continued through wintry weather, with at least five civilians killed and eight wounded between Monday and Tuesday, Ukraine’s Presidential Office reported in a morning update.

Russian forces had attacked nine regions in the south-east of the country, it said.

Ukrainian Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said 19 towns and villages in the region had been shelled by the Russian army over the past day. Occupied Lugansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the province was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Haidai told Ukrainian TV on Tuesday that local residents “live in basements without heating, food or medicine” and burn furniture to keep warm.

With fighting deadlocked in the east, Moscow has deployed missiles and drones to attack Ukraine’s might, hoping to leave locals without power when the frigid winter weather hits.

Life in the Ukrainian capital has taken a small but welcome step towards normalcy with the reopening of two of Kiev’s main metro stations on Tuesday for the first time since the war began almost 10 months ago.

The main hubs of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Khreschatyk, like the capital’s other metro stations, have served as shelters during Russian airstrikes.

“It’s a feeling that despite everything, we’re getting back to a routine we were used to,” said 24-year-old passenger Denys Kapustin. “This is very important, very important.”

Nevertheless, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sees no prospect of talks to end the war in Ukraine in the near future and expects the fighting to continue.

But he called late Monday for everything to be done to end the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II by the end of 2023.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine:

E. Eduardo Castillo, The Associated Press

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