Russia-Ukraine war: Zelensky expected to visit Washington

Credit…Presidential Press Service of Ukraine, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Credit…Valery Sharifulin / Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The presidents of Ukraine and Russia handed out medals on Tuesday: President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut to recognize Ukrainian soldiers as artillery thundered in the distance, while President Vladimir V. Putin paid tribute the figures of the Russian occupation and the leaders of the propaganda inside the safe and golden rooms of the Kremlin.

The contrast captured the intractability of a war that began 300 days ago, with Mr. Zelensky shows a new challenge and Mr. Putin indicating that his assault is not stopping.

As Russian forces push into much of the 600-mile front after a series of battlefield defeats, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure with wave after wave of missile and drone strikes aiming to plunge the nation into darkness.

On the battlefield, Russia’s repeated assaults on Bakhmut, a city once home to 70,000 in the eastern Donbas region, have been relentless and catastrophic, evoking images of the wastelands left behind by the deadliest battles of the First World War.

Mr. Zelensky set off in the early hours of the morning for perhaps his most dangerous trip to the front line since fighting began in February, traveling more than 440 miles from the capital. Wearing a plain army green jacket, he presented medals to soldiers in combat uniform and posed for photos with the soldiers while saluting their “superhuman” courage.

“The East is resisting because Bakhmut is fighting,” he told the troops, adding: “In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us.”

Mr. Zelensky continued to praise Ukraine’s defenders in his late-night speech, in which he noted that he had left Donetsk.

Credit…Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

Mr. Putin’s parallel awards ceremony had more pomp and circumstance, and less risk. It arrived hours after Mr. Putin released a video message to employees of Russian security agencies warning that the situation in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine was “extremely difficult.”

And it seemed aimed at showing Ukraine and its Western allies that Mr. Putin was determined to continue his fight, despite what US officials say is that Russian casualties exceed 100,000 dead and wounded.

Among those honored in the Kremlin on Tuesday at a televised event were some of Russia’s most prominent pro-war figures. There were the Russian-installed leaders of the four regions of Ukraine that Mr. Putin illegally annexed it in September, although much of the area is still under Ukrainian control. There was Semyon Pegov, a widely read Russian war blogger who was wounded in Ukraine. And there was Margarita Simonyan, the hardline editor of one of the Kremlin’s most important propaganda outlets, RT TV.

“Thank you for taking our people out of the bloody mouths of these man-eaters, despite the pain and blood,” said Ms. Simonyan said at the ceremony, in an apparent reference to the Kremlin’s false claim that Ukraine has been perpetrating genocide against Russian speakers. “And we’ll help you beat those man-eaters as much as you ask.”

It was a reminder that Russia’s powerful propaganda apparatus, like Mr. Putin himself is increasingly acknowledging Russia’s struggles at the front, even as he continues to hide the extent of the army’s losses. At the same time, it presents the war as existential – claiming that the real enemy is a NATO that seeks the destruction of Russia – and tries to prepare the Russians for more sacrifices.

On Tuesday, Mr. Putin seemed unwilling to cede the spotlight to Mr. Zelensky. Russian media issued reports saying the Russian leader had visited the “special military operations zone” – the Kremlin’s term for the war zone – last Friday.

Mr. Putin, in a short speech at the end of the ceremony on Tuesday, said these were “difficult and unusual times” and praised Russian soldiers as “heroes”.

“When a country or even each person develops, moves forward, it always overcomes certain difficulties along the way,” said Mr. Putin said. “But today, in fact, it comes with particular challenges.”

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