KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited command posts of the Kremlin’s forces fighting in Ukraine, officials said Tuesday, as the war approaches its 14th month and Kyiv readies a possible counteroffensive with Western-supplied weapons.
A video released by the Kremlin and broadcast by Russian state television showed Putin arriving by helicopter at the command post of Russian forces in southern Ukraine’s Kherson province and then flying to the headquarters of the Russian National Guard in Luhansk region, which is the east.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the visits took place Monday. The trip, Putin’s second in two months to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, represented an apparent attempt by the Russian leader to rally his troops and to demonstrate his authority.
Dressed in a dark suit, Putin appeared to chair meetings with his military top brass during both stops. The locations of the military headquarters weren’t disclosed, making it impossible to assess how close they were to the front line. It was impossible to independently verify the authenticity of the video footage.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become largely deadlocked amid heavy fighting in the country’s east, particularly around the city of Bakhmut, which for 8½ months has been the stage for the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Kherson and Luhansk, along with Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces, are four areas that Russia illegally annexed 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 the Russian leader of “degradation” and being the author of “mass murders” in the war.
Both then and now, 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 both locations he visited, 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 famous Russian general of the 19th century.
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 the chief of the elite military branch, is known for being popular with his troops. However, last fall he was temporarily relieved from his position amid a spat with the top military brass.
He was restored to the job earlier this year, and his attendance at the meeting with Putin indicated that 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 the commanding officer of Russian troops in Ukraine’s northeast after he was blamed for a hasty Russian pullback from parts of the Kharkiv region in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in September.
He later was named the chief of staff of the ground forces, and his meeting with Putin on Tuesday signaled that Lapin had the president’s trust.
Putin’s trips to the military headquarters come as Ukraine is preparing for a new counteroffensive to reclaim the occupied territories. Last month, he visited the Russian-held Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol, which was captured by Russian troops in May 2022 after two months of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian officials have said they’re buying time by depleting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while preparing for a counteroffensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has argued that if Russia wins the Bakhmut battle, it could allow Putin to begin building international support for a deal that would require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises to end the war.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press in an interview in Kyiv that Ukraine’s allies were helping the government to achieve the technical equipment necessary to launch the attack, including heavy armored vehicles and ammunition.
He expressed confidence that Ukraine would reclaim all its occupied territories.
“We will defeat Russia,” he said. “If you have a strong inner spirit, you will definitely win. And we always had it strong. This is something that always annoyed the Russians.”