Russian President Vladimir Putin said the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult” on Tuesday while his Ukrainian counterpart drove home the message by visiting a frontline town that Russia has long tried and failed to capture.
Addressing Russia’s security services, Putin told operatives they needed to significantly improve their work in one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched almost 10 months ago is not going to plan.
It followed a visit to close ally Belarus that fuelled fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that the country could help Russia open a new invasion front against Ukraine.
Some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks in Ukraine has taken place around the eastern city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office released video showing him there, dressed in khaki and handing out medals to soldiers to loud applause.
“Ukraine is proud of you. I am proud of you! Thank you for the courage, resilience and strength shown in repelling the enemy attacks,” Zelenskiy said in comments posted on the Telegram messaging app under photographs of him in Bakhmut.
Earlier, he renewed calls for more weapons after Russian drones hit energy targets in a third air strike on power facilities in six days.
Putin ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to step up surveillance of Russian society and the country’s 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 an over seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday after the European Union agreed to cap prices of gas, a major Russian export.
Russian gas exports to Europe via Ukraine were reduced on Tuesday when a blast ripped through a pipeline near Kazan in Russia that exports gas through Ukraine, officials were quoted by the RBC news outlet as saying. Flows were cut, they said, suggesting repair work may be to blame.
In a break with the official line that the invasion is going smoothly, Putin acknowledged the situation was “difficult” in the regions of Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claimed to annex in September and ordered the FSB to ensure the “safety” of people living 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.
In September, Putin sought to regain the initiative after a series of battlefield defeats by declaring that four partially occupied regions in Ukraine’s east and south had joined Russia. Kyiv and its Western allies said the move was illegal.
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”.
On Monday, Putin made his first visit to Belarus since 2019, where he and his counterpart extolled ever-closer ties at a news conference but hardly mentioned Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported that Belarus 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.
Kyiv, meanwhile, was seeking more weapons from the West after weeks of attacks on energy facilities which have knocked out both power and water supplies amid freezing temperatures.
Ukraine’s military said it had shot down 30 of 35 “kamikaze” drones fired by Russia on Monday, mostly at the capital Kyiv. The unmanned aircraft fly towards their target, plummet and detonate on impact. Officials in the Kyiv region said electricity supply there was “critical”.
Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday that five people had been killed in the eastern Donetsk and southern Kherson regions, with eight wounded. Missiles had knocked out power in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia and hit oil and gas facilities in eastern Ukraine.
There has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, which Moscow’s troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv to the south in February.
Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country’s troops into Ukraine. But the commander of Ukraine’s joint forces, Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, said his country was prepared.
The Kremlin on Monday dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role as “groundless” and “stupid”.
Both Putin and Lukashenko were also at pains to dismiss the idea of Russia annexing or absorbing Belarus.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Putin said.
Asked about this comment, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said it should be treated as the “height of irony”, given it was “coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment, right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next-door neighbour”.
FIGHTING GRINDS ON
The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War Two, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian artillery hammered 25 towns and villages around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the east and several areas around Kupiansk, a northeastern town retaken by Ukraine in September.
Alexei Kulemzin, the Russian-installed mayor of the city of Donetsk, said Ukrainian shelling hit a hospital wing, along with a kindergarten, posting on Telegram a photo of what appeared to be a waiting room with smashed furniture and fittings.
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. Ukraine and the West describe the Kremlin’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression.