News Zelensky visits frontline cities, shows stutter of Russian offensive
- Putin: Situation in Russian-controlled Ukraine ‘difficult’
- Zelensky visits frontline Bakhmut, praises ‘superhuman’ troops
- Putin warns of new threats from abroad and traitors at home
- Wants to step up intelligence surveillance, secure borders
KYIV, Dec 20 (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Tuesday that the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult,” as the Ukrainian leader visited a broken region long vacated by Moscow. Front-line towns that show Russia’s crumbling war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he made a surprise trip to rally Kyiv’s “superhuman” army in Bakhmut, which was bombed by continued Russian shelling and brutal fighting nearby , nicknamed “The Meat Grinder”.
Zelensky’s arrival in the eastern town came after Putin told Russia’s security services they needed to significantly improve their work, in one of his clearest public acknowledgments that the invasion he launched nearly 10 months ago would not go as planned.
Putin’s speech came ahead of a visit to close ally Belarus that sparked fears that the Kremlin dismissed that Russia’s fellow former Soviet republic could help it open a new invasion front against Ukraine, where fighting is centered in hundreds of miles in the east. miles (km) away and in the south of the country.
The most destructive fighting in recent weeks has taken place near Bakhmut, where a video released by Zelensky’s office shows him in khaki combat uniform presenting medals to soldiers at a crumbling industrial complex , won warm applause.
With the rumble of cannon in the distance, he urged them to keep their spirits up as the battle of Bachmut, which has become a symbol of brutal warfare, entered its fifth month.
“The East is holding on because Bahmut is fighting. In a fierce battle, at the cost of many lives, the freedom of all of us is defended here,” Zelensky wrote in the telegram.
“That’s why I’m with them today. They’re superhuman. They’re our strength and our heroes.”
Earlier, he repeated calls for the West to boost armaments, including air defenses, after Russian drones hit energy targets in the third strike on power facilities in six days.
Putin acknowledges ‘difficult’ situation
Contrary to official accounts that the invasion went smoothly, Putin acknowledged serious problems in the regions of Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claimed to annex in September and ordered the Federal Security Service (FSB) to ensure the “safety” of residents there.
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as well as in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions is extremely difficult,” he said in a video address to security personnel translated by Reuters.
He later presented medals to four Russian-appointed regional leaders at a televised Kremlin ceremony.
In another move on the 300th day of the invasion, Putin ordered the FSB to step up surveillance of Russian society and its borders to combat the “emergence of new threats” from foreign and domestic traitors.
The ruble fell to a more than seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday after Western countries imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia after the European Union agreed to curb the price of its main export, natural gas.
In Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters that Russia had mixed views on Ukraine’s next move, with some seeking a new offensive and others skeptical of Russia’s ability to mount one.
The annexation announced by Putin has been condemned as illegal by Ukraine and its Western allies, a counteroffensive to try to turn the tide after Ukraine has suffered a series of losses on the battlefield since the summer.
But Russian forces later pulled back on one of the newly claimed areas – Kherson – and made no progress elsewhere, while targeting energy networks in an airstrike on Ukraine that Moscow said was aimed at weakening the military.
Kyiv said the airstrikes were clearly targeting civilians to undermine their will to resist, repeatedly cutting power and water amid the sub-zero winter cold.
Prime Minister Denis Shmikhal said Ukrainians should prepare for a new Russian attack on energy infrastructure as Moscow wants them to spend Christmas and New Year in the dark.
On Monday, Putin visited Belarus for the first time since 2019, and he and his opponents praised the growing ties between the two countries but made little mention of the conflict in Ukraine.
Russian forces used Belarus as a springboard to launch an attempted attack on the southern Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, where Russian and Belarusian military activity has been ongoing for months.
Kyiv said Russian forces have continued to use Belarusian airports to carry out attacks on Ukraine since the Feb. 24 incursion.
But Lukashenko insisted he had no intention of sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine. The Kremlin has dismissed the idea of a more active role for Belarus as “baseless” and “stupid”.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia could deploy a force in Belarus to launch a new offensive against Ukraine, but he hoped the military in Minsk would not be involved because it was not in its interests to “waste its military potential”.
The conflict in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, and left cities in ruins with no end in sight.
In an evening update, the Army General Staff in Kyiv said Russian troops continued to train tank and artillery fire on Ukrainian positions near Bakhmut and 24 settlements in the east near Avdiivka, and were again shelling northeast and southern areas recently recaptured by Ukrainian troops.
It said Ukrainian aircraft carried out 10 strikes on staging areas for Russian ground forces and equipment and further struck anti-aircraft positions, an ammunition depot and three command posts, without providing locations.
Reuters could not independently verify either side’s account of the battlefield.
Russia said it was launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine to root out nationalists and protect the Russian-speaking community. Kyiv and the West dismissed this as nonsense, calling Russia’s actions an imperial land grab.
Reporting by Valentyn Ogirenko in Kyiv, Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Shri Navaratnam, Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrich; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Nick Macfie, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman
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