KYIV — President Vladimir Putin said the situation in four areas of Ukraine that Moscow has declared are part of Russia was “extremely difficult” as Kyiv renewed calls for more weapons after Russian drones hit energy targets.
In comments made on Security Services Day, which is widely celebrated in Russia, Putin also ordered the strengthening of Russia’s borders and instructed special services to keep greater control of society and ensure the safety of people in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine.
In September, a defiant Putin moved to annex a swathe of Ukraine — some 15% of the country — in a Kremlin ceremony, but earlier this month, he said the war “can be a long process.”
To Russian security agencies operating in Ukraine, he said late on Monday in comments translated by Reuters: “Yes, it is difficult for you now. The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult.”
Putin’s move to annex the areas was condemned by Kyiv and its Western allies as illegal.
On Monday, Putin made his first visit to Belarus since 2019, where he and his counterpart extolled ever-closer ties at a news conference late in the evening but hardly mentioned Ukraine.
Kyiv, meanwhile, was seeking more weapons from the West after Russian “kamikaze” drones hit energy targets.
“Weapons, shells, new defense capabilities…everything that will give us the ability to speed up the end to this war,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his evening address.
The Ukrainian military high command said their air defenses had shot down 23 of 28 drones — most over the capital Kyiv — in what was Moscow’s third air strike in six days. Russia has targeted Ukraine’s power grid, causing blackouts amid sub-zero temperatures.
The drone strikes caused no casualties, though nine buildings were damaged in the Kyiv region, it said.
The Ukrainian atomic energy agency accused Russia of sending one of the drones over part of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant in the Mykolaiv region.
The “kamikaze” drones used in the attacks are cheaply produced, disposable unmanned aircraft that fly toward their target before plummeting at speed and detonating on impact.
To the northwest of Ukraine, there has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that Moscow’s troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv in February.
Putin’s trip was his first to Minsk since the pandemic and a wave of Belarusian street protests in 2020 that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko crushed with support from the Kremlin.
Ukraine feared the discussions would be about the broader involvement of Belarusian armed forces in the invasion. Putin and Lukashenko scarcely touched on Ukraine at a post-talks news conference, instead extolling the benefits of defense and economic alignment.
Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country’s troops into Ukraine, where Moscow’s invasion faltered badly with a string of battlefield retreats in the face of a major counter-offensive.
The Kremlin on Monday dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were “groundless” and “stupid.”
Both Putin and Lukashenko were also at pains to dismiss the idea of Russia annexing or absorbing Belarus.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Putin said. “There is simply no expediency in this … It’s not a takeover, it’s a matter of policy alignment.”
Asked about this comment, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said it should be treated as the “height of irony,” given it was “coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment, right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next-door neighbor.”
Russian troops that moved to Belarus in October will conduct battalion tactical exercises, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing the defense ministry. It was not immediately clear when they would start.
FIGHTING GRINDS ON
The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War Two, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian artillery hammered 25 towns and villages around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the east and several areas around Kupiansk, a northeastern town retaken by Ukraine in September.
It also said Ukrainian air and artillery forces carried out more than a dozen strikes on Russian troops and hardware, including ammunition dumps, and shot down two helicopters.
Alexei Kulemzin, the Russian-installed mayor of the city of Donetsk, said Ukrainian shelling hit a hospital wing, along with a kindergarten, posting on Telegraph 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.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)