- Putin: Conditions in Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine ‘difficult’
- Zelinsky visits Bakhmut on the front line and praises the “super” forces
- Putin warns of new threats from without and of traitors within
- You want to step up intelligence surveillance, secure borders
Kyiv (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Tuesday that conditions in Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine were “very difficult” and showed the Ukrainian leader Russia’s faltering war by visiting a ruined frontline town long beyond Moscow’s control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zhchinsky said he made a surprise trip to rally Kyiv’s “superhero” forces at Bakhmut, which has been subjected to constant Russian bombardment and brutal fighting near which it has dubbed a “meat grinder”.
Zelensky arrived in the eastern town shortly after Putin told the Russian security services that they needed to drastically improve their work, one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched nearly 10 months ago was not planned.
Putin’s speech followed a visit by a close ally of Belarus that raised fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that Russia’s sister ex-Soviet republic could help it open a new invasion front against Ukraine, where the fighting has been focused hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the east. and south of the country.
A video released by his office showed that the most destructive fighting in recent weeks took place around Bakhmut, where Zelensky, dressed in khaki combat fatigues, handed out medals to soldiers in a rundown industrial complex to loud applause.
As artillery thundered in the distance, he urged them to keep their spirits up as the battle of Bakhmut, which had come to symbolize the grinding brutality of the war, entered its fifth month.
“The East stands firm because Bakhmut fights. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is defended here for all of us,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram.
“That’s why I’m with them today. They are superhuman. They are our strength and our heroes.”
He earlier repeated calls for more weapons from the West, including air defense systems, after Russian drones hit energy targets, the third air strike on electrical installations in six days.
Putin acknowledges the difficult situation
Breaking with the official view that the invasion was proceeding smoothly, Putin acknowledged serious problems in regions of Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claimed annexed in September, and ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to ensure the “safety” of the population there. .
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is very difficult,” he said in a video address to security workers, translated by Reuters.
He was later shown awarding medals to the four district leaders appointed by Russia at a televised ceremony in the Kremlin.
In another move, on the 300th day of his invasion, Putin ordered the FSB to step up surveillance of Russia’s society and borders to combat “the emergence of new threats” from abroad and traitors at home.
Western countries imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, and the ruble fell to its lowest level in more than seven months against the dollar on Tuesday after the European Union agreed to cap the prices of natural gas, one of Russia’s main exports.
In Washington, a senior US State Department official told reporters there were conflicting views in Russia about next steps in Ukraine, with some seeking new attacks and others doubting Russia’s ability to launch them.
The annexations announced by Putin, which Ukraine and its Western allies have condemned as illegitimate, were an attempt to turn the tide after a string of battlefield losses into a Ukrainian counteroffensive since the summer.
But Russian forces later retreated in one of the newly claimed regions – Kherson – and gained no ground elsewhere, while targeting the energy grid in air strikes across Ukraine in what Moscow says is an attempt to weaken the army.
The air strikes, which Kyiv says are clearly targeting civilians to break their will to resist, have repeatedly cut off electricity and water supplies amid the bitter cold of winter.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Ukrainians should prepare for new Russian attacks on energy infrastructure because Moscow wanted them to spend Christmas and New Years in the dark.
On Monday, Putin visited Belarus for the first time since 2019, and he and his counterpart hailed ever closer ties while barely mentioning the conflict in Ukraine.
Russian forces used Belarus as a staging ground for their failed assault on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to the south in February, and there have been Russian and Belarusian military activities in Belarus for months.
Kyiv says Russian forces have continued to use airfields in Belarus to launch strikes into Ukraine since the February 24 invasion.
But Lukashenko insists he has no intention of sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine. The Kremlin has dismissed the idea of a more active Belarusian role as “unfounded” and “stupid”.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Tuesday that Russia could prepare a force in Belarus to launch a new attack on Ukraine, but he hoped Minsk forces would not participate because it was not in their interest to “waste their military potential”.
The conflict in Ukraine has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced millions from their homes and reduced cities to rubble, with no sign of an end.
Kyiv officials said five people were killed in the eastern regions of Donetsk and southern Kherson in the latest Russian attacks. They added that the missiles caused power outages in the southern city of Zaporizhia and hit oil and gas facilities in the east. In the Kyiv region, power supplies were in critical condition.
Reuters could not independently verify either side’s accounts of the battlefield.
Russia says it is launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine to rid it of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West say this is nonsense, describing Russia’s actions as imperial-style land grabs.
(Reporting by Valentin Ogirienko in Kyiv, Lydia Kelly in Melbourne, Hamira Pamuk in Washington and Aleksandar Vasović in Belgrade; Writing by Shri Navaratnam, Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrichs; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Nick McPhee and Jonathan Otis
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