Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, praised the courage of their respective troops Tuesday as Putin’s destructive war against his neighboring country neared the 10-month mark.
Zelenskyy visited the eastern city of Bakhmut, where the two countries’ forces have engaged in some of the most intense fighting. Meeting with military personnel in a dimly lit building, he praised the “courage, resilience and strength” of Ukrainian troops as artillery boomed in the background.
Meanwhile, Putin hailed the “courage and self-denial” of his forces in Ukraine, but his statement came at a ceremony in an opulent and glittering hall at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Zelenskyy called Bakhmut, about 600 kilometers east of Kyiv, “the hottest spot on the entire front line,” but it has remained under Ukrainian control. It was not clear how he got to Bakhmut.
“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.
“Since May, the occupiers have been trying to break our Bakhmut, but time goes by and Bakhmut is already breaking not only the Russian army, but also the Russian mercenaries who came to replace the wasted army of the occupiers,” he said.
At the Kremlin, Putin presented awards to the Moscow-appointed heads of four regions of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in September. Most countries throughout the world do not recognize Russia’s claimed takeover.
“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.”
In a video address by Putin released before Tuesday’s ceremony, he praised the security personnel deployed to the four regions, 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,” Putin said. The regions are under attack from a Ukrainian counteroffensive, but Putin promised to reinforce units there with more equipment and personnel. Russia has never fully controlled any of the four areas that were part of his September annexation claim.
Putin also ordered Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, to boost surveillance at the country’s borders and within the country to combat new threats from abroad and traitors at home.
His comments came a day after he made a rare visit to Minsk, extolling the benefits of cooperation with neighboring ally Belarus, stoking fears in Kyiv that plans for a joint ground offensive are in the works.
Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev said he believed Putin’s meeting with his Belarusian counterpart would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country’s troops into Ukraine, after providing Russian troops with a launching pad for the invasion in February.
Meanwhile, British authorities gave a bleak assessment of how the war is going for Russia.
About 100,000 Russian troops were “dead, injured or have deserted” since the invasion began, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. He did not give a figure for Ukrainian casualties, but a senior U.S. military official recently said 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed and wounded.
Wallace told lawmakers in the House of Commons, “Not one single [Russian] operational commander then in place on February 24 [when the invasion began] is in charge now. Russia has lost significant numbers of generals and commanding officers.”
After 300 days of war, the British Defense Ministry tweeted that Ukraine has liberated about 54% of the maximum amount of extra territory Russia seized in the invasion.
Russia now controls about 18% of internationally recognized territory of Ukraine, including those parts of the Donbas and Crimea seized earlier, it said.
Fighting remained intense, with Zelenskyy’s office saying at least five civilians were killed and eight wounded in the last day, with Russian forces attacking nine southeastern areas.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said 19 cities and villages in the region were shelled by Russia. Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the province was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, telling Ukrainian television that residents “are living in basements without heating, food or medication” and have to burn furniture to keep themselves warm.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.