Russian President Vladimir Putin visited troops at a military base in the southern Kherson region on Tuesday, at a critical stage in the war in Ukraine as Kyiv prepares to launch a spring offensive.
In his second public trip to territory occupied since last year’s invasion, the Kremlin leader spoke to commanders from the Airborne Forces of Russia’s “Dnieper” army unit, while also meeting with other senior officers, Russian state media TASS reported.
One of the purposes of the visit was to get a “report” from military officials on Kherson, which is partly held by Russia, and the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, according to TASS.
In video released by the Kremlin, Putin’s convoy passed a sign that indicates he visited Henichesk, a town in southern Kherson that has become a headquarters for Russian forces.
“I do not want to distract you from your direct duties related to command and control,” Putin said to senior commanders. “Therefore, we are working here in a business-like manner, briefly, but concretely.
“It is important for me to hear your opinion on how the situation is developing, to listen to you, to exchange information. I would ask you to start your report with the situation in the Kherson direction, then in the Zaporizhzhia direction.”
Russian forces occupy parts of both Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, with some analysts predicting that the front lines in southern Ukraine will be the focus of Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the coming months.
Further east, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited soldiers at a hospital in the beleaguered town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, where he awarded medals to injured troops.
Zelensky listened to a report from the commander of the Donetsk operational-tactical group and talked to servicemen of the marines, airborne assault, mechanized and artillery units.
“I have the honor to be here today, to thank you for your service, for defending our land, Ukraine, our families. Congratulations on the holidays, on Easter, I wish you only victory – this is what I wish for every Ukrainian, this is what is very important to all of us,” he told the soldiers, according to the president’s office.
“I wish good health to all of you and your families, and I am sincerely grateful on behalf of every Ukrainian for the great path that you overcome every day.”
Avdiivka has been the site of intense fighting for months and is largely destroyed, although some 1,800 civilians still remain despite efforts to persuade them to leave.
There are no safe routes out of the town, but Ukrainian forces still control the routes to the west. The town is under fire almost daily by Russian artillery, but Ukrainian defenses have largely endured, despite marginal advances from Moscow to the north.
Troops from both sides are grappling with physical exhaustion and depleted ammunition stocks, in a grinding war of attrition that the US and Western allies do not expect will end this year. Russian forces have reinforced defenses in the south, including extensive mining of territory along the front lines, according to Ukrainian and western officials.
US intelligence documents leaked online in recent weeks also suggests broad infighting between Russian officials. The documents, reported by the New York Times – which CNN has not seen – suggest disagreements between Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Defense Ministry over Russia’s casualty count for the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin said it doubts the “reliability” of the reports.
On Tuesday, Putin said he will ask Mikhail Yuryevich Teplinsky, the head of Russia’s Airborne Forces, called the VDV, “to express his thoughts” because “he was on the front line for quite a long time.”
Until recently Teplinsky was thought to have fallen out of favor with the Russian defense ministry and likely dismissed from his role, in a sign of discord amid Moscow’s stuttering campaign in Ukraine.
However, UK intelligence suggested last week that his position was reinstated.
“Teplinsky is likely one of the few senior Russian generals widely respected by the rank-and-file … his recent turbulent career suggests intense tensions between factions within the Russian general staff about Russia’s military approach in Ukraine,” the UK MoD said.
The MoD added that “he was previously dismissed from the theatre in January.”
Teplinsky was one of the commanders involved in the withdrawal of Russian forces from parts of Kherson west of the Dnipro River in November 2022. Moscow’s retreat from Kherson marked a humiliating setback for Putin, but the manner of the withdrawal was well conducted with minimal losses.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group, said “Teplinsky remains highly unlikely to restore the VDV to its prior status as an elite force due to widespread losses to the most elite Russian units that are now being restaffed with poorly trained mobilized personnel.”
It said his reappearance “additionally suggests that the Russian military command is likely seeking to place an increased emphasis on the role of VDV elements in Russian offensive operations.”
The UK MoD noted that Teplinsky’s return to command in Ukraine will not be limited to VDV units, but likely meant that Teplinsky will try to promote the VDV’s traditional role as an elite force.
CNN’s Olga Voitovych contributed reporting.