KHARKIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday made an unexpected visit to troops defending Bakhmut, currently the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war, as his forces try to hold off a desperate Russian assault on the city in the eastern Donetsk region.
Ukrainian officials have sought to draw a contrast between Zelensky’s visits to forward positions or recently liberated cities — such as Bucha, where he wore body armor, and Kherson, where he posed for selfies with joyous soldiers — and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s distance from the front where critics say he has deployed thousands of conscripts, many without proper equipment or training.
And Tuesday offered a striking example.
While Zelensky handed out medals to soldiers, close to the artillery barrages in embattled Bakhmut, Putin held a government award ceremony in the Kremlin, which celebrated one of the fiercest war proponents RT network chief Margarita Simonyan, who thanked Putin for “whacking the cannibals” in Ukraine.
On Friday, Putin also visited a headquarters for top military officials at an undisclosed location, and earlier this month drove a Mercedes across a rebuilt bridge to Crimea that Ukrainian forces had blown up in October, but he has not been photographed with soldiers near the battlefields of the war he started almost 10 months ago.
Zelensky praised his soldiers on Telegram: “Unconquered by the enemy; who with their bravery prove that we will endure and will not give up what’s ours.”
“The East is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting. This is the fortress of our morale,” Zelensky said in a separate social media post. “In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us.”
While Zelensky has visited dangerous locations, including Izyum shortly after its liberation in the northeast Kharkiv region, it was not immediately clear where in Bakhmut the president had visited, or how close he had ventured to front-line positions.
A video released by a state-run media outlet showed Zelensky, wearing an army green winter jacket, standing by a table with 17 medals on display, then heartily shaking hands with soldiers as he handed out each award.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday said that Minister Sergei Shoigu made a rare trip to the front line to inspect “advanced positions of Russian units” in the combat zone. A video released by the ministry showed Shoigu flying in a helicopter over undisclosed fortifications in “areas of troop deployment.”
But open-source intelligence analysts cast doubt on Shoigu’s proximity to hostilities, geolocating the footage to a spot about 50 miles away from the front line on the border between the Kherson region and Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Russia has thrown an enormous mass of troops at Bakhmut, possibly aiming to secure at least a symbolic victory there ahead of Christmas following disastrous defeats in Kharkiv and Kherson.
Military analysts have questioned why Putin seems willing to pay such a high price to take Bakhmut, which some say lacks obvious strategic importance. Putin on Tuesday recorded a message to commemorate the holiday dedicated to Russia’s security services, in which he made a rare admission of the struggles the Russian forces are experiencing in the nearly 10-month-long invasion.
“It’s a difficult time for you right now,” Putin said addressing the officers.
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult,” he added, referring to the four regions of eastern Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed, in violation of international law and despite not controlling the entirety of any of those areas.
The Ukrainians for weeks have defied predictions that Bakhmut was on the precipice of falling to Russian control. But amid heavy fighting in recent days, some military analysts said that the Russians were making incremental advances and warned that Ukrainian troops were at risk of being encircled.
Ukrainian forces said they had also repelled an additional attempt by Wagner fighters in the northeast section of the city, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Monday.
Much of Russia’s fighting in Bakhmut has fallen to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company.
Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin released a recorded a video message to Zelensky, urging him to meet near Bakhmut to discuss “whose land is where.”
In clips published by Prigozhin’s press service, the St. Petersburg businessman is seen ordering the firing of an artillery round from a group of fighters aiming at Bakhmut. Priogozhin is under U.S. and European Union sanctions for election interference and financing mercenaries who committed human rights abuses in Africa.
Pro-war Russian bloggers derided Zelensky’s visit as an attempt to shore up Ukrainian support for the broader war ahead of Ukraine’s imminent loss of the city.
Since the Russian surrender of Kherson last month, fighting has continued at a slower pace along a roughly 620-mile front in eastern Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War also reported Russia had intensified ground attacks since Sunday in several areas along the front, including near the regional capital of Donetsk and the city of Kreminna farther north in the Luhansk region.
Speculation has mounted that Ukraine may try to launch a southward offensive through the Zaporizhzhia region, aiming to cut off the Russian-controlled “land bridge” between mainland Russia and Crimea.
Russia is conflicted about the prospect of launching a new offensive of its own, a senior U.S. State Department official said Tuesday. Some Russian officials are eager to capture more Ukrainian territory and others are concerned about whether Russian forces, which are running low on ammunition, are sufficiently equipped, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters.
On Tuesday, a blast rocked a section of the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhhorod gas pipeline, one of the few remaining routes delivering a limited amount of Russian fuel to Western Europe via Ukraine, killing three workers. The explosion took placed in the Chuvashia region, east of Moscow. According to Russia’s emergency services, the gas flare up occurred during scheduled maintenance.
Ilyushina reported from Riga, Latvia, and Stern from Kyiv, Ukraine. John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.