Zelensky visits Bakhmut’s troops, venturing close to the bloodiest battles


KHARKIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday paid an unexpected visit to the troops defending Bakhmut, now the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war, as his forces try to stop a desperate Russian assault on the city in the eastern region of Donetsk.

The president’s trip, which was confirmed by Zelensky’s spokesman Sergii Nykyforov in his Facebook pagehighlighted the carnage in Bakhmut, where Russian forces, including mercenaries, have been pressing for months to claim a battlefield victory after a series of defeats and retreats in southern and eastern Ukraine.

It was not immediately clear which part of Bakhmut the president had visited, or how close he had ventured to frontline positions. Amid heavy fighting in recent days, some military analysts said the Russians were making incremental advances and warned that Ukrainian troops risked being encircled.

“The President visited the front positions of one of the mechanized brigades, whose personnel confront the enemy at the approaches to the city,” says the Facebook post. “The Head of State listened to the commander’s report on the operational situation, material and technical support, and suggestions for future actions. While in the combat area, Zelensky thanked the Ukrainian soldiers for the courage, stamina and strength they showed in repelling enemy attacks.”

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A video published by state media showed Zelensky, dressed in 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. Zelensky also published about his visit in his telegram channel.

Ukrainian officials have tried to draw a contrast between Zelensky’s willingness to visit his troops in frontline positions or in recently liberated cities such as Kherson and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent lack of trips to the front, where critics they say Russia has deployed thousands of recruits, many without proper equipment or training.

Military analysts have questioned why Putin seems willing to pay such a high price to take Bakhmut, which is of no obvious strategic importance.

Much of Russia’s fighting in Bakhmut has fallen to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company. In his late-night speech on Monday, Zelensky called Bakhmut the “hottest spot” on the front.

The Ukrainians have for weeks defied predictions that Bakhmut was on the brink of surrender to Russian control. Russian forces have tried to encircle the city, leading to bloody fighting for gradual advances in the south and east and in some of the suburban outskirts outside the city, according to military analysts.

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Ukrainian forces said they had also repelled an additional attempt by Wagner’s fighters in the northeastern section of the city, the Institute for the Study of Warfare, a Washington-based think tank, said Monday.

Russian military bloggers reacted to Zelensky’s alleged visit by stating that it reflected an attempt to bolster Ukrainian support for the war in general before losing the city.

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 that 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, further north in the region of Luhansk. Speculation has increased that Ukraine may try to launch an offensive south through the Zaporizhzhia region, with the aim of cutting the Russian-controlled “land bridge” between mainland Russia and Crimea, which was illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

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In his speech on Monday, Zelensky said that the fight for Bakhmut is “breaking” the Russian forces. The Ukrainian military has previously estimated that up to 100 Russian soldiers are killed every day in Bakhmut.

“Since May, the occupiers have been trying to break our Bakhmut, but time is passing,” Zelensky said. “And Bakhmut is already wiping out not only the Russian army, but also the Russian mercenaries who came to replace the occupiers’ lost soldiers.”

Stern reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

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