KYIV – It was a moment that captured the intractability of a war that began nearly 10 months ago, featuring two antagonists presenting very different versions of the conflict.
The presidents of Ukraine and Russia both handed out medals on Tuesday.
Mr Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, wearing a plain army-green jacket, on Tuesday made perhaps his most dangerous trip to the front lines since the fighting began in February, travelling to the ravaged city of Bakhmut to meet soldiers as the thunder of artillery echoed in the distance.
At almost the same time, Mr Vladimir Putin of Russia summoned pro-war figures and propaganda leaders to an ornate hall in the Kremlin, where he honoured them for their commitment to the invasion of Ukraine.
It was a split-screen moment that captured the intractability of a war that began 300 days ago and offered a stark contrast in wartime leadership, with Mr Zelensky flashing fresh defiance and Mr Putin signalling no letup in his assault.
Mr Zelensky was expected to make another daring trip on Wednesday – this time to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House and address Congress in person, according to four people familiar with the planning. The plans were not final, and the risks involved – with the Ukrainian leader making his first known trip outside his country since Russia invaded – are high.
Mr Putin’s televised event on Tuesday, meanwhile, appeared aimed at showing his audience – both at home and abroad – that he was determined to continue the fight despite what US officials say are Russian casualties now exceeding 100,000 dead and wounded.
Mr Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut, whether by design or otherwise, stole some of the attention from Mr Putin by showcasing the Ukrainian leader’s defiance and tolerance for personal risk in a city so devastated by repeated Russian assaults that it evokes images of the wastelands of World War I.
Ukraine’s success at retaining control of the city in the eastern Donbas region has lent it a symbolism that outstrips its military significance. “Bakhmut Holds”, read bumper stickers, artwork and T-shirts that can be found across Ukraine.
“The east is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting,” Mr Zelensky said as he presented medals to Ukrainian soldiers and posed for photos. “This is the fortress of our morale. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us.”
Mr Putin, too, appeared to be steeling his citizens for a difficult fight ahead.
He honoured the Russia-installed leaders of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September, though parts of the areas remain under Ukrainian control. And he recognised Mr Semyon Pegov, a widely read Russian war blogger who was injured in Ukraine, and Ms Margarita Simonyan, the hard-line editor of the RT television network, one of the Kremlin’s most important propaganda outlets.
“Thank you for wresting our people out of the bloody mouths of these man-eaters, despite the pain and the blood,” Ms Simonyan said, in an apparent reference to the Kremlin’s false claim that Ukraine has been perpetrating a genocide against Russian speakers. “And we will help you whack these man-eaters as much as you demand it from us.”
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