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Putin, Zelenskyy rally troops with war poised for new phase

Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited command posts of the Kremlin’s 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited command posts of the Kremlin’s 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 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.

A video released by the Kremlin and 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 east.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the visits took place Monday. The trip represented an apparent attempt by the Russian leader to rally his troops and demonstrate his authority.

Dressed in a dark suit, Putin appeared to chair meetings with his military top brass during 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 footage.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his latest trip to positions near the front line to stiffen the resolve of soldiers battling Putin’s troops. Zelenskyy visited units in Avdiivka, a city in Donetsk province where fierce battles are taking place, his office said. He heard first-hand reports about the battlefield situation and handed out awards.

Zelenskyy’s visits to areas of his country that have felt 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 leader’s wartime trips usually aren’t publicized until after he’s already left an area.

While official coverage of Putin’s trip showed the Russian leader 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.

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 8 1/2 months has been the stage for the longest and bloodiest battle so far.

Kherson and Luhansk, along with 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 the Russian leader 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 parallel development, the Moscow-appointed governor of the occupied part of Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, went to Minsk and won pledges of support from Belarus 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,” said Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich, 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.”

In both locations he visited, 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 famous Russian general of the 19th century.

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 the chief of the elite military branch, is known for being popular with his troops. However, last fall he was temporarily relieved of his position amid a spat with the top military brass.

He was restored to the job earlier this year, and his attendance at the meeting with Putin indicated that he was back in favor.

A senior officer who greeted Putin in the Luhansk region, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, was also relieved of his duties as the commanding officer of Russian troops in Ukraine’s northeast after he was blamed for a hasty Russian pullback from parts of Kharkiv province in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in September.

He was later named as chief of staff of the ground forces, and his meeting with Putin signaled that Lapin had the president’s trust.

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

Ukrainian officials have said they’re buying time by depleting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while preparing for a counteroffensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has argued that if Russia wins the battle for Bakhmut, it could allow Putin to begin building international support for a deal that would require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises to end the war.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press in an interview that Ukraine’s allies were helping the government assemble the materiel needed to launch 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 the Ukrainian president’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 Kherson city.