KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Tuesday with troops in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the scene of some of the most intense combat since Russia invaded the country, praising their “courage, resilience and strength” as artillery boomed in the background.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the “courage and self-denial” of his forces in Ukraine — but he did so at a ceremony in an opulent and glittering hall at the Kremlin in Moscow, not on the battlefield.
Both leaders sought to build morale as the stalemated conflict grinds through its 10th month and winter sets in.
Zelenskky met with military personnel in a dimly lit building — possibly a disused factory — in Bakhmut, which he has called “the hottest spot on the entire front line,” his office said. The city, about 600 kilometers (380 miles) east of Kyiv, has remained in Ukrainian hands, thwarting Moscow’s goal of capturing the rest of Donetsk province and the entire Donbas industrial region.
The Ukrainian leader told the troops he passed through Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Druzhkivka to reach Bakhmut in an unannounced trip that appeared designed to show Moscow’s failure to capture the city and dishearten the Russians trying to surround it.
“Bakhmut Fortress. Our people. Unconquered by the enemy. Who with their bravery prove that we will endure and will not give up what’s ours,” he wrote on his Telegram channel, thanking the troops for “the courage, resilience and strength shown in repelling the enemy attacks.
“Since May, the occupiers have been trying to break our Bakhmut, but time goes by and Bakhmut is already breaking not only the Russian army, but also the Russian mercenaries who came to replace the wasted army of the occupiers,” he said.
Russia’s invasion, which began Feb. 24, has lost momentum. The illegally annexed provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia remain fiercely contested. Capturing Bakhmut would sever Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward cities that are key Ukrainian strongholds in the Donetsk province.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military contractor, are reported to be leading the charge in Bakhmut. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Russia-backed separatists had controlled parts of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk since 2014. The two provinces together make up the Donbas.
Unverified videos on a popular Russian social media platform showed the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, standing near an artillery piece and saying he was ready to meet Zelenskyy in Bakhmut. In a statement accompanying the videos, Prigozhin’s spokespeople relayed a message to Zelenskyy reading: “If you haven’t left Bakhmut yet, I’m ready to meet you. Prigozhin.” It wasn’t clear from the videos where they were shot or when.
At the Kremlin ceremony, Putin presented awards to the Moscow-appointed heads of the four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine.
“Our country has often faced challenges and defended its sovereignty,” Putin said. “Now Russia is again facing such a challenge. Soldiers, officers and volunteers are showing outstanding examples of courage and self-denial on the front line.”
In a video address honoring Russia’s military and security agencies, he praised the security personnel deployed to the four regions, saying that “people living there, Russian citizens, count on being protected by you.”
Putin acknowledged the challenges faced by security personnel deployed there.
“Yes, it’s difficult for you,” he said, adding that the situation in the regions is “extremely difficult.”
The former KGB operative added: “Your duty is to do all that is needed to ensure their safety and protection of rights and freedoms.” Putin also promised to reinforce units there with more equipment and personnel. The regions are under pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin also called on counterintelligence officers to step up efforts to “derail activities by foreign spy agencies and quickly track down traitors, spies and saboteurs.”
British authorities, meanwhile, gave a bleak assessment of how the war is going for Russia.
Some 100,000 Russian troops were “dead, injured or have deserted” in the invasion, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. Wallace didn’t give a figure for Ukrainian casualties, but a senior U.S. military recently put the estimated number of Ukrainian troops killed and wounded at about 100,000.
Losses in Russia’s military command have also taken a toll, as has the destruction of equipment. “Not one single operational commander then in place on Feb. 24 is in charge now,” Wallace told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “Russia has lost significant numbers of generals and commanding officers.”
“Russian capability has been severely hampered by the destruction of more than 4,500 armored and protected vehicles, as well as more than 140 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft,” Wallace said.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has succeeded in recapturing large swaths of land. After 300 days of war, the U.K. Ministry of Defense tweeted, Ukraine has liberated about 54% of the maximum amount of extra territory Russia seized in the invasion. It didn’t say what portion of the Ukrainian territory Russia controlled at the peak of its gains.
Russia now controls about 18% of internationally recognized areas of Ukraine, including those parts of the Donbas and Crimea seized earlier, it said.
With battles still raging, Zelenskyy’s office said at least five civilians have been killed and eight wounded since Monday, with Russian forces attacking nine southeastern areas.
Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russia shelled 19 cities and villages in the region in the past day.
With the fighting in the east at a stalemate, Moscow has used missiles and drones to attack Ukraine’s power equipment, hoping to leave people without electricity as freezing weather sets in.
Life in the Ukrainian capital took a minor but welcomed step toward normality with the reopening of two of Kyiv’s main subway stations for the first time since the war began. The key hubs of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Khreschatyk, like the capital’s other underground stations, have served as air raid shelters.
“It’s the feeling that despite everything, we are returning to a routine that we were used to,” said 24-year-old passenger Denys Kapustin. “This is very important.”
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