Kyiv, Ukraine: The Kremlin said on Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin had visited two frontline regions in Ukraine, prompting a strong rebuke from Kyiv which said he was viewing “the crimes of his minions”.
The Kremlin did not say when Putin visited the southern region of Kherson and the eastern region of Lugansk, which Putin claimed to have annexed last September without fully controlling them.
The Kremlin chief sent troops to Ukraine in February, 2022, triggering the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
Ukrainian forces have said they are preparing for a spring counter-offensive.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky, dismissed Putin’s trip as “a ‘special tour’ of the mass murders author… to enjoy the crimes of his minions for the last time.”
After Putin’s visit was made public on Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had shelled the central market area of Kherson, injuring six people.
Last year, Russia was beaten back in northern and southern regions and Moscow’s forces have made only incremental gains in eastern Ukraine.
Much of the fighting is now concentrated around the eastern town of Bakhmut which has become the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict.
During his trip to Ukraine, Putin met Russian military commanders and discussed the situation on several fronts of the pro-Western country, the Kremlin said.
Video footage released by the Kremlin showed Putin disembarking from a helicopter as he visited the headquarters of the Dnieper army group in the Kherson region.
He also visited national guard headquarters in Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s important for me to hear your opinion on the situation, to listen to you and to exchange information,” Putin said in the video, surrounded by senior military commanders.
The Russian leader wished the troops a happy Easter, which Orthodox Christians marked last Sunday, and gifted them copies of old icons, the Kremlin said.
His trips to Kherson and Lugansk came after the Kremlin said in March that the Russian leader had made a surprise trip to the port city of Mariupol that Moscow captured after a long siege last spring.
British military intelligence said on Tuesday that “heavy fighting” continued along the Donbas front line.
“However, there is a realistic possibility that Russia has reduced troop numbers and is decreasing offensive action around Donetsk city, most likely to divert resources towards the Bakhmut sector,” it said in a statement on Twitter.
The statement said that in Bakhmut, Russia’s regular troops and forces from the Wagner mercenary outfit continued to make “creeping advances.”
“The front line in the town centre largely follows the main railway line,” the statement said.
Ukraine, the statement said, wants “to free-up an offensive force while Russia likely aspires to regenerate an operational reserve.”
The commander of Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Russian troops were not abandoning their goal of taking control of Bakhmut “at any cost,” ramping up the use of heavy artillery and air strikes.
Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, for his part said that Russia currently had “no offensive potential for a strategic offensive operation.”
The head of the Ukrainian president’s office, Andriy Yermak, meanwhile said he spoke with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“We agreed on further coordination on the issue of providing aid in Ukraine and discussed further steps in this direction,” he said on Telegram.