Ukrainian President visits combat zone; Putin gathers forces

Kyiv: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday visited an eastern city that is 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 selflessness” of his forces in front line in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy met with military personnel in Bakhmut, the scene of “fierce battles” between Ukrainian defenders and invading Russian forces, the president’s office said. The city, located about 600 kilometers (380 miles) east of Kyiv, remained in Ukrainian hands, thwarting Moscow’s aim to seize the entire Ukrainian region of Donbass.
It wasn’t clear how Zelensky arrived at Bakhmut, but his unannounced trip to the combat zone seemed intended to boost Ukrainian morale and discourage the Russians who were trying to surround the town. The president hailed “the courage, resilience and strength shown by the people in repelling enemy attacks”.
“Bakhmut Fortress. Our people. Undefeated by the enemy. Who with their bravery prove that we will endure and not give up what is ours,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
As the Kremlin tries to advance its stalled invasion and Ukrainians burn their furniture to try to stay warm, Cheese fries saluted his country’s military and security agencies at a ceremony in the Kremlin. Among other things, he presented prizes to Moscow-appointed heads of four regions of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in September.
“Our country has often faced challenges and defended its sovereignty,” Putin said. “Now Russia is once again faced with such a challenge. Soldiers, officers and volunteers are showing outstanding examples of courage and selflessness on the front line.
The ground invasion of Russia, which began on February 24, has lost momentum in recent months. The annexed provinces – Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia – remain bitterly disputed. Capturing Bakhmut, which is located in Donetsk, would cut Ukraine’s supply lines and open a path for Russian forces to move towards towns that are major Ukrainian strongholds in the province.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, would lead the charge at Bakhmut. Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion, Russian-backed separatists had controlled parts of Donetsk and the nearby city of Lugansk since 2014. The two provinces together form Donbass.
The Kremlin released a video address by Putin ahead of Tuesday’s awards ceremony. In it, he praised the security personnel deployed in the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, saying that “the people living there, the citizens of Russia, are counting on your protection”.
“Your duty is to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safety and the protection of rights and freedoms,” the Russian leader said on the national day commemorating the work of security agencies.
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, as well as Russian attacks on unoccupied towns and villages.
Putin, a KGB veteran, also called on counterintelligence officers to step up their efforts to “derail the activities of foreign spy agencies and quickly track down traitors, spies and saboteurs”.
In Ukraine, the war continued in wintry weather, with at least five civilians killed and eight injured between Monday and Tuesday, Zelenskyy’s office reported in a morning update.
Russian forces attacked nine regions in the southeast of the country, he added.
Ukrainian Governor of Donetsk Pavlo Kyrylenko said 19 towns and villages in the region had been shelled by the Russian military over the past day. Governor of occupied Lugansk Serhiy Haidai said the province was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
Haidai told Ukrainian television on Tuesday that local residents “live in basements without heating, food or medicine” and have to burn furniture to keep warm.
With fighting in the east at a stalemate, Moscow has used missiles and drones to attack the Ukrainian powerhouse, hoping to leave residents without power as freezing weather sets in.
Life in Ukraine’s capital took a small but welcome step towards normality with the reopening of two of Kyiv’s main metro stations on Tuesday for the first time since the war began nearly 10 months ago.
The key hubs of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Khreschatyk, like other metro stations in the capital, served as shelters during Russian air raids.
“It’s the feeling that despite everything, we’re going back to a routine we were used to,” said 24-year-old passenger Denys Kapustin. “It’s very important, very important.”
Even so, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said he sees no prospect of talks to end the war in Ukraine in the immediate future and expects the fighting to continue.
But he called Monday evening for everything to be done to end the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War by the end of 2023.


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