(Kyiv) The Ukrainian president visited Avdiivka, one of the hottest points on the front, on Tuesday, shortly after Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to the occupied Ukrainian territories, when Kyiv says it is preparing a major offensive.
In terms of images, the two moves couldn’t be more different.
Volodymyr Zelensky met Ukrainian soldiers and presented them with decorations. A video also shows him in a partially destroyed area of the city of Avdiivka, in the Donetsk region, in the grip of intense shelling for months by the Russian army which is trying, in vain, to surround it.
“It is my honor to be here today, to thank you for your service, for the defense of our land,” he told the military. Mr. Zelensky also visited a military hospital in the same area.
Vladimir Putin, whose public outings are rare and ultra-secure, has meanwhile gone, in the greatest secrecy, to occupied regions in the south and east.
The Kremlin reported no meetings with soldiers or civilians but meetings at military headquarters with senior army officials.
“It’s important for me to hear your opinion on the situation, to listen to you,” Putin said, according to video released by the Kremlin.
Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, called the trip “a ‘special tour’ of the perpetrator of mass murders in the occupied territories”.
According to the Kremlin, this “routine” trip took place Monday in the region of Kherson (south) and in that of Luhansk (east) which Moscow claims the annexation.
It is only the second time that the Russian president has visited the conflict zone since the start of the invasion he ordered in February 2022. The first time, in March, he went to Mariupol at night, a city conquered last year after a bloody and destructive siege.
For security reasons, it seems, he was not accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of military operations and the general staff of the armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov.
On the other hand, the Russian president spoke with the commander of the Russian airborne forces, General Mikhail Teplinsky, and other senior military officials to discuss the situation in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.
This area is regularly mentioned by analysts as a possible theater of the expected spring offensive by Ukrainian forces.
These territories are strategic because they form a territorial continuity between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014. Breaking this land bridge would be a major setback for Moscow.
The Russian army has already suffered major defeats, being forced to give up taking Kyiv and northern Ukraine in the spring of 2022, then being pushed back in the fall from the Kharkiv region (northeast) and of Kherson, the capital of the eponymous southern region.
The Russians wanted to regain the initiative this winter by relaunching their assault in the east, but so far their advances have been limited and their losses heavy.
In Bakhmout, the epicenter of the conflict where the longest battle of the war is taking place, the fighting remains fierce. After nine months, the Russians control two-thirds.
A few kilometers west of there, AFP encountered Ukrainian deminers responsible for clearing the way for theirs to Bakhmout.
“The city is just ruins. There is hardly a whole house,” said one of the soldiers, Denys.
Pavlo, 33, recounts how Russian forces send waves of human beings to attack Ukrainian positions, seemingly oblivious to casualties.
“More than once they were seen jumping out in the open and running. They get killed, they regroup, then start again,” he said.
The Ukrainian soldiers, who have received heavy tanks and long-range guns from their Western allies in recent weeks, promise to launch a new major offensive as soon as the weather permits.
Kyiv did not release figures but the leader of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigojine, on the front line in the east, estimated that Moscow must prepare to repel a Ukrainian force of 200,000 to 400,000 people.
On the diplomatic front, Russia, under Western sanctions, continued its efforts to demonstrate that it is not isolated.
She thus welcomed the Chinese Minister of Defense, Li Shangfu, at the very moment when Washington and Europe fear that Beijing could deliver weapons to the Russians.
The Chinese official insisted on having the “firm determination to strengthen strategic cooperation between the Chinese and Russian armed forces” and to promote “military trade”.
The head of Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov was for his part in Latin America, where he met the Brazilian president on Monday, who called on Westerners to act in order to open negotiations.
Washington judged that Lula was repeating “Russian propaganda” while Ukraine invited him to go and see the reality of the war for himself.