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Putin visits two Russian-held regions in Ukraine as Moscow keeps pressing assault on Bakhmut

Russian President Vladimir Putin is descending from a military helicopter as he visits the headquarters of the Dniepr military group in Kherson, Ukraine, on April 17, 2023. (Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited two Russian-occupied regions of Kherson and Luhansk in Ukraine as Moscow keeps pressing an assault on the frontline town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. 

On Tuesday, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a press conference that Putin had met his commanders in the two regions of Kherson and Luhansk a day earlier, rejecting claims that the visits took place at a different time.

"It was yesterday. Indeed, the president said, when gifting the icon, that we have Easter. The fact is that our Easter lasts 40 days, we continue celebrating it, now we have Easter week. That’s why it is erroneous to pay attention to that phrase and make hypotheses about something that was never real. The trip took place yesterday," Peskov stressed.

He added that Putin had visited on Monday the headquarters of the Dnipr battlegroup on the Kherson front and the headquarters of the National Guard East battlegroup in Luhansk.

During his short trip, Putin heard reports from his commanders of the airborne forces and the Dnieper army group as well as other senior officers who briefed him on the situation in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south.

According to the Kremlin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov did not accompany Putin on his trip as a security precaution.

Moscow added the four Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia to the Russian Federation after holding referendums in the said regions in September last year.

Ukraine and its Western allies denounced the move as illegal, calling the votes a "sham." However, Moscow named the regions as constituent subjects of the Russian Federation in a constitutional decree despite the fact that Russian forces have not yet managed to take the regions under their full control. In fact, much of the territory in the Russian-annexed regions still remains in Ukrainian hands.

The development comes as Russian forces on Tuesday stepped up heavy artillery bombardments and air strikes on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, where Ukrainian forces holding out despite regular claims by Moscow to have seized the mining town.

For the past several months, Bakhmut and its surrounding towns have been the focal point of attacks by Russia, which launched a full-scale war against neighboring Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Neither side has full control over the town and both have suffered heavy losses so far.

"Currently, the enemy is increasing the activity of heavy artillery and the number of air strikes, turning the city into ruins," the commander of Ukraine's ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The battle to seize heavily fortified Bakhmut has been spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner group, Russia's private security company which has made small but steady gains against the Ukrainian troops defending the town.

Earlier this month, the head of the Wagner group said that its fighters controlled more than 80 percent of the town. Ukraine's military, however, has denied this.

Moscow says Bakhmut would be a stepping stone and a rare battlefield gain in completing the capture of the Donbas industrial region (composed of Donetsk and Luhansk), one of Moscow’s most important objectives.

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