Russian, Ukrainian leaders visit frontline towns, meet troops

Published April 19, 2023
Russian leader Vladimir Putin (left) visited the Kherson and Lugansk regions, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) met troops 
in the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.—AFP
Russian leader Vladimir Putin (left) visited the Kherson and Lugansk regions, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) met troops in the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.—AFP

KYIV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met troops in a frontline town Tuesday, a day after Russian leader Vladimir Putin visited occupied zones as Kyiv builds up to an expected counteroffensive.

While 45-year-old Zelensky spoke with soldiers in the heavily bombarded town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s footage showed Putin, 70, visiting the occupied territory in the south and east, under a veil of secrecy.

Putin’s visit came as China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu was in Moscow to demonstrate what he called Beijing’s “determination” to stronger Russia ties. Moscow has been seeking allies to confront the West as its war in Ukraine causes immense destruction and suffering but is far from the goal of capturing control of the country.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, called Putin’s trip “a ‘special tour’ of the mass murders’ author”, adding he went to Ukraine’s occupied territories “to enjoy the crimes of his minions for the last time”.

Zelensky meets troops in eastern Ukraine; Putin secretly tours occupied territory

Zelensky went to Avdiivka, located close to Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, and thanked troops for their service, his office said.

A video also showed Zelensky standing outside with soldiers in the heavily bombarded town, apparently not wearing protective gear. “I have the honour to be here today, to thank you for your service, for defending our land, Ukraine, our families,” Zelensky told the soldiers.

Putin visits occupied territory

Putin visited the partly Russian-occupied Kherson and Lugansk regions and heard reports from top commanders on Monday, and the Kremlin made the trips public a day after it happened.

Moscow portrayed the trip as a marker of its control in occupied Ukraine, but Russia does not fully hold those areas despite claiming them after a widely-condemned annexation last year.

The Kremlin released footage showing Putin disembarking from a helicopter as he visited the headquarters of the Dnieper army group and met military commanders. He also visited national guard headquarters in Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s important for me to hear your opinion on the situation, to listen to you and to exchange information,” Putin said.

The Kremlin said in March Putin had also made a surprise trip to the port city of Mariupol. “The president is now visiting the new regions more and more often,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

After Putin’s visit was made public, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had shelled the centre of Kherson, killing one person and injuring nine.

Last week, a Russian strike on a block of flats in the eastern city of Sloviansk killed 15, including a two-year-old boy, and wounded 24.

According to video footage released by the Kremlin, neither Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu nor Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, accompanied the president.

During his trip to Ukraine, Putin heard reports from Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of Russia’s airborne troops, and Colonel-General Alexander Lapin.

‘No houses left’

British military intelligence said on Tuesday that “heavy fighting” continued along the Donbas front line in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s regular troops and forces from the Wagner mercenary outfit continued to make “creeping advances” in Bakhmut.

Much of the fighting is now concentrated around the eastern town of Bakhmut that has become the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict. Several kilometres to the west, in the village of Druzhkivka, military engineers tasked with clearing mines to make way for Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut said the fight was becoming more and more precarious.

“The city looks more like ruins. There are almost no whole houses left. It’s practically wiped out,” said Denis, a 20-year-old military engineer from western Ukraine. Pavel, a 33-year-old sapper from the same unit, said Russian troops were throwing forces at the fight, apparently caring little for their losses.

The commander of Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Russian troops were not abandoning their goal of taking control of Bakhmut “at any cost”, ramping up the use of heavy artillery and air strikes.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2023

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