Russian President Vladimir Putin has met his commanders in two regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims to have annexed, while Russian forces stepped up heavy artillery bombardments and air strikes on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
The Kremlin said Mr Putin had attended a military command meeting in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region and visited a national guard headquarters in eastern Luhansk. It did not say when the visits took place.
Mr Putin heard reports from commanders of the airborne forces and the Dnieper army group as well as other senior officers who briefed him on the situation in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south.
“It is important for me to hear your opinion on how the situation is developing, to listen to you, to exchange information,” Mr Putin, 70, told the commanders.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dismissed Mr Putin’s trip as “a ‘special tour’ of the mass murders author… to enjoy the crimes of his minions for the last time.”
After Mr Putin’s visit was made public on Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had shelled the central market area of Kherson, injuring six people.
Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk are the four regions that Mr Putin proclaimed annexed last September following what Kyiv and its Western allies said were sham referendums. Russian forces only partly control the four regions.
Russian troops retreated from Kherson city, the regional capital, last November, and have been reinforcing their positions on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
While numerous Western leaders have made their way to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Russian forces invaded 14 months ago, Mr Putin has rarely visited parts of Ukraine under Russian control.
Last month, he visited Crimea — annexed by Russia in 2014 — and the southeastern city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region.
A Russian winter offensive failed to make much progress and its troops have been bogged down in a series of battles in the east and south, where advances have been incremental and come at a huge cost to both sides.
Fighting has raged in and around Bakhmut in Donetsk region for months, with Ukrainian forces holding out despite regular claims by Russia to have taken the mining city.
“Currently, the enemy is increasing the activity of heavy artillery and the number of air strikes, turning the city into ruins,” the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Bakhmut’s capture could provide a stepping stone for Russia to advance on two bigger cities it has long coveted in the Donetsk region — Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
The head of the Wagner mercenary group, which has spearheaded Russia’s attempt to take Bakhmut, said this month that its fighters controlled more than 80 per cent of the city. Ukraine’s military has denied this.
Russia says its “special military operation” in Ukraine, launched on 24 February last year, was necessary to protect its security against what it sees as a hostile and aggressive West.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia is waging an unprovoked war aimed at grabbing territory.