Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made an unannounced visit to Bakhmut, an embattled city in the country’s east that has been under relentless Russian attacks for several months.
Zelenskyy’s office said on Tuesday he had met and spoken with military personnel during the visit to the front-line city and handed out awards to Ukrainian servicemen.
Bakhmut has remained in Ukrainian hands during Russia’s 300-day-long offensive, thwarting Moscow’s goal of capturing the entirety of the Donetsk region and the wider Donbas, parts of which have been controlled by Russian proxies since 2014.
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But Zelenskyy said earlier this month that Russia’s efforts to conquer the city – whose pre-war population of 70,000-80,000 people has now shrunk to close to 10,000 – have turned it into ruins.
“The occupiers actually destroyed Bakhmut, another Donbas city that the Russian army turned into burned ruins,” he said last week.
Taking Bakhmut would rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which are key Ukrainian strongholds in the region.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reported to be leading the charge on the city.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv, said Zelenskyy’s visit was “significant” given the ferocity of the battle for Bakhmut and would “boost morale” among Ukrainian troops stationed there.
“This is a city that has been fought for with increasing intensity for the last four or five months,” Stratford said.
“We understand that thousands of fighters and soldiers from both sides have lost their lives in the fighting,” he added.
“It is trench warfare [there], with close combat in some areas of the city, especially in the east, and the Russians have been using airstrikes and heavy artillery as well.”
Putin warns of ‘difficult situation’ in partly-occupied regions
Zelenskyy’s visit came as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin described the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine as “extremely difficult”.
Addressing Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB), Putin told operatives they needed to significantly improve their work in a speech that was one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched in late February is not going to plan.
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is extremely difficult,” Putin said, citing the four partly-occupied Ukrainian regions which Moscow unilatateraly moved to annex in September.
He also ordered FSB to ensure the “safety” of people living there.
In October, Russian forces drew back in one of the regions – Kherson – and dug in elsewhere. They have failed to gain ground and earlier this month, Putin said the war could be a “long process”.
His address on Tuesday followed a visit to close ally Belarus a day earlier that fuelled fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that the country could help Russia open a new invasion front against Ukraine. Russian troops used Belarus as a launch pad for their initial offensive.
On Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported that Minsk had reached an understanding with Moscow on the restructuring of its debt and had agreed on a fixed price for Russian gas for three years.
Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was seeking more weapons from its Western allies after weeks of Russian attacks on energy facilities that have knocked out power and water supplies amid freezing temperatures.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War II, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced vast swathes of the country to rubble.