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Ukraine’s Zelenskyy visits the frontline town of Bakhmut

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has paid an unannounced visit to Bakhmut, a besieged city in the east of the country that has been under relentless Russian attacks for several months.

Zelenskyy’s office said on Tuesday that he met and spoke with military personnel during the visit to the frontline city and presented awards to the Ukrainian military.

Bakhmut has remained in Ukrainian hands throughout Russia’s 300-day offensive, thwarting Moscow’s goal of capturing the entirety of the Donetsk region and the wider Donbas, parts of which have been controlled by Russian proxies since 2014.

But Zelenskyy said earlier this month that Russia’s efforts to conquer the city, whose prewar population of 70,000-80,000 has now dwindled to about 10,000, have turned it into ruins.

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“The occupiers actually destroyed Bakhmut, another Donbas town that the Russian army turned into burnt-out ruins,” he said last week.

Seizing Bakhmut would break Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to advance towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which are key Ukrainian strongholds in the region.

Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reportedly leading the charge against the city.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv, said Zelenskyy’s visit was “significant” given the ferocity of the battle for Bakhmut and would “boost morale” among Ukrainian troops stationed there.

“This is a city that has been fought for with increasing intensity over the last four or five months,” Stratford said.

“We understand that thousands of fighters and soldiers from both sides have lost their lives in the fighting,” he added.

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It’s trench warfare [there]with hand-to-hand combat in some areas of the city, especially in the east, and the Russians have also been using airstrikes and heavy artillery.”

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A local resident walks past his burning house after the Russian shelling in Bakhmut.
Bakhmut has remained in Ukrainian hands during the nearly 10-month Russian offensive. [File: Libkos/AP]

Putin warns of “difficult situation” in partially occupied regions

Zelenskyy’s visit came as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin described the situation in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine as “extremely difficult.”

Addressing Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB), Putin told agents they needed to significantly improve their work in a speech that was one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched in late February was not it will be planned

“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is extremely difficult,” Putin said, citing the four partially occupied Ukrainian regions that Moscow unilaterally annexed in September.

He also ordered the FSB to ensure the “safety” of the people living there.

In October, Russian forces withdrew in one of the regions, Kherson, and entrenched elsewhere. They have failed to gain ground, and earlier this month Putin said the war could be a “long process.”

His speech on Tuesday followed a visit to close ally Belarus a day earlier that fueled fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that the country could help Russia open a new invasion front against Ukraine. Russian troops used Belarus as a launching pad for their initial offensive.

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On Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported that Minsk had reached an understanding with Moscow on its debt restructuring and agreed to a fixed price for Russian gas for three years.

Meanwhile, Ukraine said it was seeking more weapons from its Western allies after weeks of Russian attacks on energy facilities have left power and water supplies cut off amid sub-zero temperatures.

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Russia’s war in Ukraine, the biggest in Europe since World War II, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced large swathes of the country to rubble.

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