Putin, Zelensky signal permanent defiance on 300th day of war: Live updates

credit…Press Office of the Ukrainian President, 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 boomed in the distance, while President Vladimir V. Putin honored Russian occupation figures and propaganda leaders inside safe, gilded halls of the Kremlin.

The contrast captures the intractability of a war that began 300 days ago, with Mr. Zelensky flashing a new challenge and Mr. Putin signaling that he will not let up on the offensive.

As Russian forces entrench themselves across much of a 600-mile front after a series of battlefield defeats, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure with wave after wave of missile and drone strikes aimed at plunging the nation into darkness.

On the battlefield, Russia’s repeated attacks Bakhmuta city that was once home to 70,000 residents in the Eastern Donbass region are relentless and catastrophic, evoking images of the wasteland left after the deadliest battles of the First World War.

Mr Zelensky set off early in the morning for what may be his most dangerous journey to the front line since the fighting began in February, covering more than 440 miles from the capital. Dressed in a plain army green jacket, he presented medals to soldiers in combat uniformand posed for photos with the soldiers while hailing their “superhuman” courage.

“The East Stands Because Bachmouth Fights”, he said troops, adding: “In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is defended here for us all.”

credit…Tyler Hicks/New York Times

Mr Putin’s parallel awards ceremony featured more pomp and circumstance – and less risk. It came hours after Mr Putin released a video address to Russian security officials in which he warned that the situation in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult”.

And it appeared to be aimed at showing Ukraine and its Western allies that Mr. Putin is determined to continue his fight, despite what American officials say is that Russian losses now exceed 100,000 killed and wounded.

The honorees at the Kremlin on Tuesday in a televised event included some of Russia’s most prominent supporters of the war. There were the Russian-appointed leaders of the four Ukrainian regions that Mr. Putin illegally annexed in September, although much of the region is still under Ukrainian control. There was Semyon Pegov, a well-read Russian military blogger who was wounded in Ukraine. And there was Margarita Simonyan, the hardline editor of one of the Kremlin’s most important propaganda outlets, the RT television network.

“Thank you for prying our people from the bloody mouths of these cannibals, despite the pain and blood,” Ms Simonyan said at the ceremony, in an apparent reference to the Kremlin’s false claim that Ukraine is committing genocide against Russian speakers. “And we’ll help you kill those cannibals as much as you ask us to.”

It was a reminder that Russia powerful propaganda apparatuslike Mr. Putin himself, is increasingly acknowledging Russia’s struggles on the front, even as he continues to hide the extent of the army’s losses. At the same time, he presents the war as existential – claiming that the real enemy is NATO, which seeks to destroy Russia – and tries to prepare the Russians for further casualties.

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

“When a country or even every person develops, moves forward, he always overcomes certain difficulties along the way,” Putin said. “But today it does come with particular challenges.”

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