Intel

With War Poised for New Phase, Putin and Zelenskyy Rally Troops

April 18, 2023Associated Press
Putin Zelenskyy

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, a soldier reports to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during an awarding ceremony at a position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP.

By ADAM PEMBLE, Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited command posts of his forces fighting in Ukraine for the second time in two months, officials said Tuesday, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his latest trip to positions near the front line.

The visits — on different days and in different provinces — sought to stiffen the resolve of soldiers as the war approaches its 14th month and as Kyiv readies a possible counteroffensive with Western-supplied weapons.

Kremlin video broadcast by Russian state television showed Putin arriving by helicopter at the command post of Russian forces in southern Ukraine’s Kherson province and then flying to the headquarters of the Russian National Guard in Luhansk province, which is in the country's east. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the visits took place Monday.

Dressed in a dark suit, Putin attended briefings with his military brass in both of his stops. The locations of the military headquarters weren’t disclosed, making it impossible to assess how close they were to the front line. Nor was it possible to independently verify the authenticity of the video.

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy made his latest trip to visit units in Avdiivka, an eastern city in Donetsk province where fierce battles are taking place, his office said. He heard first-hand reports about fighting and handed out awards.

Zelenskyy’s visits to areas feeling the brunt of Russia's full-scale invasion gathered pace last month as he shuttled across the country, often by train. As with Putin, the Ukrainian's wartime trips usually aren't publicized until after he's already left an area.

While official coverage of Putin’s trip showed him in mostly formal and ceremonious settings, photographs issued by Zelenskyy’s office showed the Ukrainian president taking selfies with soldiers, eating cake with them and drinking out of paper cups.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with a soldier during an awarding ceremony at a position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has become largely deadlocked amid heavy fighting in the east, particularly around the Donestk province city of Bakhmut, which for 8½ months has seen the longest and bloodiest battle so far.

Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces were annexed illegally by Russia in September, following local referendums that Ukraine and the West denounced as shams. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak was scathing in his criticism of Putin's trip, accusing him of “degradation” and being the author of “mass murders” in the war.

Both then and now, large parts of Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as well as some areas of Luhansk province, have remained under Ukrainian control. In November, Russian forces ceded territory in Kherson province, including the region’s namesake capital.

In a related development, the Moscow-appointed governor of the occupied part of Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, went to the Belarus capital of Minsk and won pledges of support from President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally.

Analysts said Pushilin’s visit was likely approved by the Kremlin and sought to remind Kyiv about the possibility of Belarus joining Russia in the war.

“The Kremlin forces Minsk to get involved in the war more actively in order to pressure Ukraine with threats of Belarus joining,” Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said in a telephone interview. “It is clear that Pushilin's visit to Minsk has been synchronized with Putin’s trip to the occupied Ukrainian regions and aims to show that the Belarusian threat hasn’t gone away.”

During his visits, Putin congratulated the military divisions on Orthodox Easter, which was celebrated Sunday, and presented them with icons. Speaking to senior officers at the Kherson headquarters, Putin handed them a copy of an Orthodox icon he said belonged to a 19th century Russian general.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy talks with a commander at a position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP.

The senior officers present at the meetings reflected which ones were currently in favor with Putin. Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, the chief of Russia’s airborne troops, was among the top generals at the Kherson base. 

Teplinsky, a career officer who rose from lieutenant to become chief of the elite military branch, is known for being popular with his troops. Last fall, however, he was temporarily relieved of his position amid a spat with the military brass. He was restored to the job this year, and his meeting with Putin indicated he was back in favor.

A senior officer who greeted Putin in the Luhansk region, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, also was relieved of his duties as commanding officer in northeastern Ukraine after he was blamed for a hasty Russian pullback from parts of Kharkiv province in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in September. Lapin was later named as chief of staff of the ground forces, and his meeting with Putin signaled he had the president's trust.

Putin’s trips came as Ukraine is preparing a new counteroffensive to reclaim occupied territories. Last month, he visited the Russian-held port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The city was captured by Russian troops in May 2022 after two months of fierce fighting.

Ukrainian officials have said they’re depleting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while preparing for a counteroffensive. Zelenskyy has argued that if Russia seizes Bakhmut, it could allow Putin to begin building international support for a deal requiring Ukraine to make compromises to end the war.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press that Ukraine’s allies were helping the government assemble the materiel needed for a counteroffensive, including heavy armored vehicles and ammunition.

Meanwhile, at least three civilians were killed and 11 wounded in Ukraine between Monday and Tuesday, according to Zelenskyy’s office. Most of the casualties occurred in the Donbas, the eastern region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, the office said. Six people were wounded in artillery fire in the city of Kherson.

Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

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