Putin and Zelensky praise their soldiers and signal a long battle ahead

Putin and Zelensky praise their soldiers and signal a long battle ahead

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It was a moment that captured the unruliness of a war that began nearly 10 months ago between two antagonists who presented very different versions of the conflict.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, wearing a plain army green jacket, on Tuesday made what may be his most perilous trip to the front lines since fighting began in February. He traveled to the devastated city of Bakhmut to present medals to soldiers under thunderstorm artillery echoed in the distance.

At almost the same time, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin summoned pro-war and propaganda leaders to an ornate hall in the Kremlin, where he honored them for their work in invading Ukraine.

Mr Putin’s televised event was apparently aimed at showing his audiences – both at home and abroad – that he was determined to continue the fight, although American officials say Russian casualties now exceed 100,000 dead and wounded.

Mr Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut, whether on purpose or otherwise, stole some of the attention from Mr Putin by showing the Ukrainian leader’s defiance and tolerance for personal risk in a city so ravaged by repeated Russian attacks was devastated that it evokes images of the badlands of World War I.

Ukraine’s success in maintaining control of the city in the eastern Donbass region has given it symbolism that surpasses its military importance. “Bakhmut Holds,” reads bumper stickers, artwork and T-shirts found across Ukraine.

“The East is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting,” Mr Zelensky said as he presented medals to Ukrainian soldiers and posed for photos. “This is the stronghold of our morality. In bitter fighting and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us.”

Mr Putin, too, appeared to be arming his citizens for a difficult struggle ahead.

He honored the Russian-installed leaders of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September, though parts of the territories remain under Ukrainian control. And he recognized Semyon Pegov, a widely read Russian war blogger who was injured in Ukraine, and Margarita Simonyan, the hard-line editor of RT TV, one of the Kremlin’s main propaganda organs.

“Thank you for ripping our people out of the bloody mouths of these cannibals, despite the pain and blood,” Ms Simonyan said in an apparent reference to the Kremlin’s false claim that Ukraine committed genocide against Russian-speaking people. “And we will help you beat up those cannibals as much as you ask us to.”

It was a reminder that Moscow’s powerful propaganda apparatus, like Mr Putin himself, has increasingly begun to acknowledge Russian fighting on the front lines, even if it still hides the extent of the casualties. At the same time, Russian propaganda portrays the war as existential – claiming that the real enemy is NATO bent on Russia’s annihilation – and tries to prepare the Russians for more casualties.

Mr Putin, in a short speech at the end of the ceremony, said these were “difficult, unusual times” and hailed Russian soldiers as “heroes”.

“When a country or even every person develops, moves forward, he always overcomes certain difficulties on this path,” said Mr. Putin. “But today it is actually accompanied by special challenges.”

Hours earlier, Mr Putin released a video message to employees of Russia’s security agencies, warning that the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult”.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What is your motivation for telling us this? Have they proven reliable in the past? Can we confirm the information? Even with those questions answered, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

In response, Mr Putin suggested he would crack down. In a transcript of the video address released by the Kremlin, the Russian leader called on his security agencies to intensify their efforts “to put an end to the activities of foreign special services and to promptly identify traitors, spies and diversionary tactics”.

Mr Putin has projected the image of a leader more directly involved in the invasion in recent days.

On Friday, he made an unannounced visit to a military command post coordinating the fight, the Kremlin said, without revealing the location. And on Monday he paid a rare visit to Belarus to strengthen military and economic ties with the country’s authoritarian president, a close ally who has allowed the Russian military to use its territory as a theater of war.

There are growing concerns in Ukraine that Russia is planning a new offensive that could include a second attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv. Russia is planning the attack, Ukrainian officials say, even as it continues to target Ukraine’s power plants and other vital infrastructure in a bid to deprive the country of heat and light during winter.

Energy officials say the attacks have left Kyiv with enough power for only about 20 percent of the city’s 3.3 million residents, forcing utilities to institute longer and more unpredictable outages to keep the grid stable.

Some analysts have said it would be difficult for Russia to launch a major offensive as its forces are worn down by 10 months of fighting and the Ukrainian military’s recent successes on the battlefield.

A senior State Department official said Tuesday that senior Russian officials were torn over whether to launch a new offensive, while Moscow’s military leaders were locked in an internal debate over an escalation.

The official said Washington sees “contradictory things” in the debate. Some officials are pushing for the offensive, while others question whether Russia has the capacity to do so, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic and intelligence sensitivities.

The official did not detail the information, which Washington used as a window into internal Russian debate. And because of the disagreements there, the official said, it’s unclear where “their actual actions will lead.”

Ukrainians fear Russia may launch a ground offensive, citing Moscow’s recent conscription of about 300,000 additional soldiers. And Russia has signaled to the West that, despite its heavy losses, it is prepared for far more.

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, told CIA chief William J. Burns last month that Russia would never give up, no matter how many troops it lost on the battlefield, the New York Times reported. A NATO member has warned allies Mr Putin is willing to accept the death or injury of up to 300,000 Russian soldiers, about triple his previously estimated casualties.

Edward Wong and Carly Olson contributed coverage.

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