KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday visited an eastern city that is a focus of some of the most intense combat of Russia’s nearly 10-month war, while Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the “courage and self-denial” of his front-line forces in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy met with military personnel in Bakhmut, the scene of “fierce battles” between Ukraine’s defenders and Russia’s invading forces, the president’s office said. The city, located about 380 miles east of Kyiv, has remained in Ukrainian hands, thwarting Moscow’s goal of capturing Ukraine’s entire Donbas region.
It was not clear how Zelenskyy got to Bakhmut, but his unannounced trip to the combat zone appeared designed to shore up the morale of Ukrainians and to dishearten the Russians trying to encircle the city. The president saluted people’s “courage, resilience and strength shown in repelling the enemy attacks.”
“Bakhmut Fortress. Our people. Unconquered by the enemy. Who with their bravery prove that we will endure and will not give up what’s ours,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
While the Kremlin tries to advance its stalled invasion and Ukrainians burned their furniture to try to stay warm, Putin hailed his country’s military and security agencies during a Kremlin ceremony. Among others, he presented awards to the Moscow-appointed heads of four regions of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in September.
“Our country has often faced challenges and defended its sovereignty,” Putin said. “Now Russia is again facing such challenge. Soldiers, officers and volunteers are showing outstanding examples of courage and self-denial on the front line.”
Russia’s ground invasion, which began Feb. 24, has lost momentum in recent months. The annexed provinces – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia – remain fiercely contested. Capturing Bakhmut, which is located in Donetsk, would cleave Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward the cities that are key Ukrainian strongholds in the province.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reported to be leading the charge in Bakhmut. Before Russia’s full-scale invsion, Russia-backed separatists had controlled parts of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk since 2014. The two provinces together make up the Donbas.
The Kremlin released a video address by Putin before Tuesday’s award ceremony. In it, he singled out for praise the security staff deployed to the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, saying that “people living there, Russian citizens, count on being protected by you.”
“Your duty is to do all that is needed to ensure their safety and protection of rights and freedoms,” the Russian leader said on the national day commemorating the security agencies’ work.
He promised to reinforce units stationed in the annexed areas with more equipment and personnel. The regions are are under pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive, as well as from Russian attacks on non-occupied cities and towns.
Putin, a KGB veteran, also called on counterintelligence officers to step up efforts to “derail activities by foreign spy agencies and quickly track down traitors, spies and saboteurs.”
In Ukraine, the war ground on through wintry weather, with at least five civilians killed and eight wounded between Monday and Tuesday, Zelenskyy’s office reported in a morning update.
Russian forces attacked nine regions in the country’s southeast, it said.
The Ukrainian governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said 19 cities and villages in the region were shelled by the Russian army over the past day. The governor of occupied Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said the province was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Haidai told Ukrainian television Tuesday that local residents “are living in basements without heating, food or medication” and have to burn furniture to keep themselves warm.
With the fighting in the east at a stalemate, Moscow has used missiles and drones to attack Ukraine’s power, hoping to leave locals without electricity as freezing winter weather sets in.
Life in the Ukrainian capital took a minor but welcomed step toward normality with the reopening of two of Kyiv’s main subway stations Tuesday for the first time since the start of the war almost 10 months ago.
The key hubs of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Khreschatyk, like the capital’s other underground stations, have served as shelters during Russian air raids.
“It’s the feeling that despite everything, we are returning to a routine that we were used to,” said 24-year-old passenger Denys Kapustin. “This is very important, very important.”
Even so, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he sees no prospect of talks to end the war in Ukraine in the immediate future and expects the fighting to continue.
But he called late Monday for everything possible to be done to halt the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II by the end of 2023.