By Dan Peleschuk and Guy Faulconbridge
KIEV/MOSCOW (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his commanders in two regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims it has annexed as Russian forces intensified heavy artillery shelling and air strikes on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city by Bakhmut.
The Kremlin said Putin attended a military command meeting in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region and visited a National Guard headquarters in eastern Luhansk on Monday.
Putin heard reports from the commanders of the Airborne Forces and Dnieper Army Group, as well as other senior officers who briefed him on the situation in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south.
Neither Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu nor Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov joined Putin on his trip as a security precaution, the Kremlin said.
A senior Ukrainian presidential aide, Mykhailo Podolyak, took to Twitter to mock Putin’s trip as a “‘special tour’ by the perpetrator of mass murder in the occupied and ruined territories to enjoy the crimes of his henchmen for the sake of the last time”.
Kiev and the West accuse Russian forces of committing war crimes in occupied Ukrainian territory, which Moscow denies.
Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk are the four regions that Putin proclaimed annexed last September following what Ukraine called fictitious referendums. Russian forces only partially control the four regions.
Russian troops withdrew from the city of Kherson, the region’s capital, last November and strengthened their positions on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
While numerous Western leaders have traveled to Kiev for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since Russian forces invaded 14 months ago, Putin has rarely visited parts of Ukraine under Russian control.
Last month he visited Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – and the southeastern city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region.
A Russian winter offensive failed to make much headway and its troops became mired in a series of battles to the east and south where progress was incremental and came at enormous cost to both sides.
Fighting has raged for months in and around Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, with Ukrainian forces holding on despite Russia’s regular claims that it has taken the mining town.
“Currently, the enemy is increasing the activity of heavy artillery and the number of air strikes, turning the city into ruins,” the commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Bakhmut’s capture could provide Russia with a springboard to advance towards two larger cities it has long coveted in the Donetsk region: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
The head of the Wagner mercenary group, which spearheaded Russia’s attempt to take Bakhmut, said this month his fighters controlled more than 80 percent of the city. The Ukrainian military has denied this.
Russia says its “special military operation” in Ukraine, launched on February 24 last year, was necessary to protect its security from what it sees as a hostile and aggressive West.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia is waging an unprovoked war to seize territory.
A meeting of the Group of Seven foreign ministers in Japan on Tuesday condemned a Russian plan to place short-range tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a Moscow ally that borders Ukraine.
It was the first time Russia had said it would place nuclear weapons on another country’s territory since the end of the Cold War three decades ago.
In a statement following a three-day meeting in Japan, the G7 foreign ministers said: “Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and its threat to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus are unacceptable.”
“Any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by Russia would have serious consequences,” they said.
The G7 brings together the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, all of which have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, razed cities, forced millions from their homes and shaken the global security order, even prompting Russia to strengthen ties with non-Western actors like China .
Russian Defense Minister Shoigu told his Chinese counterpart Li Shangu during talks in Moscow on Tuesday that their countries’ military cooperation has been a “stabilizing” force in the world and helped reduce the chances of conflict.
Li said his trip was aimed at showing the world that China is determined to strengthen its strategic cooperation with Russia, TASS news agency reported.
Beijing refrained from criticizing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin also praised Brazil’s efforts to mediate the Ukrainian conflict on Tuesday. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has drawn criticism from the United States for suggesting that the West had “encouraged” the war by arming Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Japan’s defense ministry said it scrambled a fighter jet in response to what it claimed were Russian planes gathering intelligence over seas near Japan. Earlier, Russia said two of its strategic bombers – capable of carrying nuclear warheads – had conducted patrol flights over the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea in the Russian Far East.
(Reporting by the RockedBuzz via Reuters offices; Writing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Angus MacSwan.)