President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Tuesday that conditions in Russian-held areas of Ukraine were “extremely difficult” and Ukraine’s leader showed up Russia’s faltering war by visiting a shattered frontline town that has long eluded capture by Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zekenskiy said he made the surprise trip to rally Kyiv’s “superhuman” troops in Bakhmut, so blasted by continuous Russian shelling and brutal fighting nearby it has been nicknamed “the meat grinder”.
Zelenskiy arrived in the eastern town shortly after Putin told Russia’s security services they needed to significantly improve their work, one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched almost 10 months ago is not going to plan.
Putin’s address followed a visit to close ally Belarus that stoked fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that Russia’s fellow former Soviet republic could help it open a new invasion front against Ukraine, where fighting has been concentrated hundreds of miles (km) away in the east and south of the country.
The most destructive fighting in recent weeks has taken place around Bakhmut, where Zelenskiy, dressed in combat khaki, handed out medals to soldiers in a tumbledown industrial complex to loud applause, video released by his office showed.
With the boom of artillery audible in the distance, he urged them to keep up their spirits as the battle for Bakhmut, one that has come to symbolise the grinding brutality of the war, enters its fifth month.
“The East is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram.
“That’s why I am with them today. They are superhumans. They are our strength and our heroes.”
Earlier, he repeated calls to the West for more weaponry including air defence systems after Russian drones hit energy targets in a third air strike on power facilities in six days.
In a break with the official line that the invasion is going smoothly, Putin conceded serious problems in regions of Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claimed to annex in September, and he ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to ensure the “safety” of residents there.
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult,” he said in a video address to security workers translated by Reuters.
He was later shown awarding medals to the Russian-appointed leaders of the four regions in a televised Kremlin ceremony.
In another move on the 300th day of his invasion, Putin ordered the FSB to step up surveillance of Russian society and borders to combat the “emergence of new threats” from abroad and traitors at home.
Western countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and the rouble slumped to a more than seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday after the European Union agreed to cap prices of natural gas, a major Russian export.
In Washington, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters there were conflicting views in Russia on what the next steps in Ukraine should be, with some seeking new offensives and others doubting Russia’s capacity to wage them.
Putin’s proclaimed annexations, condemned as illegal by Ukraine and its Western allies, were an attempt to turn the tide after a series of battlefield losses to a Ukrainian counter-offensive since the summer.
But Russian forces later drew back in one of the newly claimed regions – Kherson – and have gained no ground elsewhere, while targeting the energy grid in aerial strikes across Ukraine in what Moscow says is a bid to degrade the military.
The air attacks, which Kyiv says are clearly aimed at civilians to break their will to resist, have repeatedly cut power and water supplies amid subzero winter cold.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukrainians should prepare for new Russian attacks on energy infrastructure because Moscow wanted them to spend Christmas and New Year in darkness.
On Monday, Putin visited Belarus for the first time since 2019 and he and his counterpart extolled ever-closer ties while barely mentioning the conflict in Ukraine.
Russian troops used Belarus as a springboard for their abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to the south in February and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity in Belarus for months.
Kyiv says Russian forces have continued using airfields in Belarus for strikes on Ukraine since the Feb. 24 invasion.
But Lukashenko insists he has no intention of sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine. The Kremlin dismissed the idea of a more active Belarusian role as “groundless” and “stupid”.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia could prepare a force in Belarus to start a new offensive on Ukraine but he hoped Minsk’s troops would not take part as it was not in its interest to “waste its military potential”.
The conflict in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins, with no sign of an end.
Five people were killed in the eastern Donetsk and southern Kherson regions by the latest Russian attacks, Kyiv officials said. Missiles knocked out power in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia and hit oil and gas facilities in the east, they said. In the Kyiv region, power supply was in a critical state.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts of either side.
Russia says it is waging a “special military operation” in Ukraine to rid it of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West say this is nonsense, calling Russia’s actions an imperial-style land grab.