MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin visited command posts of his forces fighting in Ukraine for the second time in two months, officials said Tuesday, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his latest trip near the front line.
The visits — on different days and in different provinces — sought to stiffen the resolve of soldiers as the war approaches its 14th month and as Kyiv readies a possible counteroffensive with Western-supplied weapons.
Some of the most significant of those weapons appeared to have recently arrived in Ukraine. Germany's official federal government website on Tuesday listed a Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system as among the military items delivered within the past week to Ukraine.
Ukraine has been pressing for Patriots and other air defense systems from its allies for months, and Germany's appeared to be the first to have arrived. Ukrainian air force spokesman Yurii Ihnat declined to confirm Tuesday that a Patriot is in Ukraine, local media outlet RBC-Ukraine reported, while stating that receiving the missiles would be a landmark event, allowing Ukrainians to knock down Russian targets at a greater distance.
Elsewhere, Kremlin video showed Putin arriving by helicopter at the command post of Russian forces in southern Ukraine's Kherson province, then flying to the headquarters of the Russian National Guard in Luhansk province, in the country's east. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the visits took place Monday.
Dressed in a dark suit, Putin attended briefings with his military brass on both of his stops. The locations of the military headquarters weren’t disclosed, making it impossible to assess how close they were to the front line. Nor was it possible independently to verify the video's authenticity.
On Tuesday, Zelenskyy made his latest trip to visit units in Avdiivka, an eastern city in Donetsk province where fierce battles are taking place. He heard first-hand reports about fighting and handed out awards.
Zelenskyy’s visits to areas feeling the brunt of Russia’s full-scale invasion gathered pace last month as he shuttled across the country, often by train. As with Putin, the Ukrainian president's wartime trips usually aren’t publicized until afterward.
While official coverage of Putin's trip showed him in mostly formal and ceremonious settings, Zelenskyy's office issued photos showing the Ukrainian president taking selfies with soldiers, eating cake with them and drinking out of paper cups.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become largely deadlocked, with heavy fighting in the east, particularly around the Donestk province city of Bakhmut, which for 8½ months has seen the longest and bloodiest battle so far.
Russia illegally annexed Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces in September, following local referendums that Ukraine and the West denounced as shams. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak was scathing in his criticism of Putin’s trip, accusing him of “degradation” and being the author of “mass murders” in the war.
Large parts of Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as well as some areas of Luhansk province, have remained under Ukrainian control. In November, Russian forces ceded territory in Kherson province, including the region’s namesake capital.
In a related development, the Moscow-appointed governor of the occupied part of Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, went to the Belarus capital of Minsk and won pledges of support from President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally.
“The Kremlin forces Minsk to get involved in the war more actively in order to pressure Ukraine,” Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said in a telephone interview. “It is clear that Pushilin’s visit to Minsk has been synchronized with Putin’s trip to the occupied Ukrainian regions and aims to show that the Belarusian threat hasn’t gone away.”
During his visits, Putin congratulated the military divisions on Orthodox Easter, which was celebrated Sunday, and presented them with icons. Speaking to senior officers at the Kherson headquarters, Putin handed them a copy of an Orthodox icon he said belonged to a 19th century Russian general.
The senior officers present at the meetings reflected which ones were currently in favor with Putin. Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, the chief of Russia's airborne troops, was among the top generals at the Kherson base.
Teplinsky, a career officer who rose from lieutenant to become chief of the elite military branch, is known for being popular with his troops. Last fall, however, he was temporarily relieved of his position amid a spat with the military brass. He was restored to the job this year, and his meeting with Putin indicated he was back in favor.
A senior officer who greeted Putin in the Luhansk region, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, also was relieved of his duties as commanding officer in northeastern Ukraine after he was blamed for a hasty Russian pullback from parts of Kharkiv province in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in September. Lapin was later named as chief of staff of the ground forces, and his meeting with Putin signaled he had the president’s trust.
Putin’s and Pushilin's trips came as Ukraine is preparing a new counteroffensive to reclaim occupied territories, possibly using the newly arrived Patriot.
In addition to Germany, the United States and Netherlands have pledged to provide Patriots, and a group of 65 Ukrainian soldiers trained in Oklahoma last month on how to use them.
The Patriot is a surface-to-air guided missile system first deployed in the 1980s that can target aircraft, cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles. A Patriot missile battery typically includes six mobile launchers, a mobile radar, a power generator and an engagement control center. Zelenskyy has said Ukraine needs at least 20 Patriot batteries.
Ukrainian officials have said they’re depleting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while preparing for a counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, at least three civilians were killed and 11 wounded in Ukraine between Monday and Tuesday, according to Zelenskyy's office. Most of the casualties occurred in the Donbas, the eastern region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, the office said. Six people were wounded in artillery fire in the city of Kherson.
In another in a series of possible cross-border attacks into Russia, a drone a Russian official said was sent from Ukraine hit a military office in the Bryansk town of Novozybkov. Gov. Alexander Bogomaz said on Telegram that the building was damaged and no one was hurt. Ukrainian officials, in keeping with past practice, didn't comment on the incident.
Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine