Vladimir Putin has made a rare admission of his country’s military challenges in the 10-month-old war in Ukraine as Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited a key city in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has failed to capture despite months of relentless shelling.
In a video message to Russia’s security services, Putin said the situation in the four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions was “extremely complicated”, and urged security agencies to intensify their efforts to identify “traitors, spies and diversionists”.
The video was released on a special holiday dedicated to Russia’s powerful security services.
Putin’s speech once again highlighted Moscow’s growing acknowledgement that the war in Ukraine is not going to plan. Earlier this month, the Russian leader said the conflict in Ukraine could turn into a “long-term process”, after Moscow was forced to abandon some of the territories it annexed illegally in September, notably fleeing the city of Kherson.
Putin’s message on Tuesday came hours before Zelenskiy’s office announced that the Ukrainian leader made a surprise visit to the embattled city of Bakhmut, which has largely been ravaged after nearly five months of fighting and has been referred to by both sides as the “Bakhmut meat-grinder”.
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“It seems to me that the Bakhmut heroes should get the same that every person gets,” Zelenskiy said in a video posted by the local Freedom TV channel while handing out awards to Ukrainian soldiers. “I wish their children, families – that everything is fine with them, that they have warmth, that they have health.”
Russian army soldiers, alongside fighters from the Wagner private military group, have been trying to seize Bakhmut after reaching the outskirts of the city in July following a series of successful offensives during which Moscow captured the nearby cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
However, Russia has since suffered a string of dramatic defeats in the north and south of Ukraine, and the battle for Bakhmut is widely seen as an opportunity for Moscow to regain lost prestige after months of military setbacks. Russia and Ukraine have recently moved troops from the Kherson region and elsewhere to reinforce their efforts, with both sides believed to be suffering heavy casualties.
The battle for Bakhmut is also a key test for the Wagner head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is believed to have recruited thousands of Russian convicts to help with the storming of the city. Prigozhin has previously fiercely criticised the Russian defence ministry for its performance in Ukraine and has lauded Wagner as the country’s most capable fighting force. The city’s capture by Russia would increase Prigozhin’s political standing as he seeks a more prominent position in the country’s decision-making process.
Prigozhin published a video on Tuesday evening, purportedly filmed near Bakhmut, in which he orders a group of soldiers to fire artillery at the city.
“Dear Vladimir Alexandrovich [Zelenskiy], if you haven’t left Bakhmut yet, I’m ready to meet you,” Prigozhin said.
If Bakhmut were to fall, military observers have said Ukraine could pull back to the west without suffering heavy strategic defeats. But a retreat from the city might suggest Kyiv’s military efforts were running out of steam after months of continuous gains.
“Militarily, Bakhmut has no strategic importance,” Col Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said earlier this month. “But it has psychological significance.”
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