- Putin: Step up intelligence surveillance and secure borders
- Putin warns of new threats from abroad and traitors at home
- Drones inflict more damage on Ukraine’s energy grid
- Zelenskiy visits town in east long targeted by Russia
By Tom Balmforth and Oleksandr Kozhukhar
KYIV, Dec 20 (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult” on Tuesday while his Ukrainian counterpart drove home the message by visiting a frontline town that Russia has long tried and failed to capture.
Putin told Russia’s security services they needed to significantly improve their work in one of his clearest public admissions yet that the invasion he launched almost 10 months ago is not going to plan.
His address followed a visit to close ally Belarus that fuelled fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that the country could help Russia open a new invasion front against Ukraine.
Some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks has taken place around Ukraine’s eastern city of Bakhmut. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the city on Tuesday, dressed in khaki, and handed out medals to soldiers to loud applause, video released by his office showed.
“The East is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram. “In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us.”
Earlier, he renewed calls for more weapons after Russian drones hit energy targets in a third air strike on power facilities in six days.
On the 300th day of his invasion, Putin ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to step up surveillance of Russian society and borders to combat the “emergence of new threats” from abroad and traitors at home.
Western countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and the rouble slumped to a more than seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday after the European Union agreed to cap prices of natural gas, a major Russian export.
A blast, which officials blamed on repairs, cut flows of gas through a pipeline near Kazan in Russia. Local television showed a huge fireball; pipeline operator Gazprom said later the flows, which go via Ukraine, had been redirected through parallel pipelines.
In a break with the official line that the invasion is going smoothly, Putin acknowledged serious problems in the regions of Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claimed to annex in September and ordered the FSB to ensure the “safety” of those living there.
“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult,” he said in a video address to security workers translated by Reuters.
He was later shown awarding medals to the Russian-appointed leaders of the four regions in a televised Kremlin ceremony.
Putin’s proclaimed annexations, condemned as illegal by Ukraine and its Western allies, were an attempt to turn the tide after a series of battlefield defeats.
But the following month, Russian forces drew back in one of the newly claimed regions – Kherson – and they have failed to gain ground elsewhere, while pounding energy facilities across Ukraine in what they say is a bid to degrade the military.
The strikes, which Ukraine says are clearly aimed at civilians, have repeatedly cut power and water supplies amid freezing temperatures.
A senior U.S. state department official told reporters there were conflicting views in Russia on the next steps in Ukraine, with some seeking new offensives while others questioned Russia’s ability to carry them out.
On Monday, Putin made his first visit to Belarus since 2019, where he and his counterpart extolled ever-closer ties while barely mentioning Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russian news agencies said Minsk had reached an understanding with Moscow on the restructuring of its debt and had agreed on a fixed price for Russian gas for three years.
Moscow’s troops used Belarus as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv to the south in February and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity there for months.
Lukashenko insists he has no intention of sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine. But the commander of Ukraine’s joint forces, Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, said his country was prepared.
The Kremlin dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role as “groundless” and “stupid” and both Putin and Lukashenko were at pains to dismiss the idea of Russia annexing or absorbing Belarus.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Putin said, a comment U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said was the “height of irony” given that Putin was seeking “right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next-door neighbour”.
The conflict in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins, with no sign of an end.
Five people were killed in the eastern Donetsk and southern Kherson regions in the latest Russian attacks, Ukrainian officials said. Missiles knocked out power in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia and hit oil and gas facilities in eastern Ukraine, they said, while in the Kyiv region electricity supply was in a critical state.
Alexei Kulemzin, the Russian-installed mayor of the city of Donetsk, said Ukrainian shelling hit a hospital wing, along with a kindergarten, posting on Telegram a photo of what appeared to be a waiting room with smashed furniture and fittings.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts of either side.
Russia says it is waging a “special military operation” in Ukraine to rid it of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Ukraine and the West describe the Kremlin’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression.
Russia’s war on Ukraine latest news
(Reporting Ronald Popeski in Winnipeg, Valentyn Ogirenko in Kyiv, Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Costas Pitas, Shri Navaratnam and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)