In perhaps his most daring visit to the front lines since Russia invaded Ukraine 300 days ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the ravaged city of Bakhmut on Tuesday morning to rally the soldiers there and demonstrate his defiance of Russia’s invasion.
His unannounced visit came only hours after President Vladimir V. Putin acknowledged that his war may not be going according to plan, saying the situation in Russian-held parts of Ukraine was “extremely difficult.”
The battle for Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, has turned into one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. As losses for both sides have mounted, Ukraine’s hold on the ravaged city has taken on a symbolism that outstrips its military significance. There are bumper stickers, artwork and T-shirts in shops across Ukraine with the slogan: “Bakhmut Holds.”
Despite months of Russian bombardments and waves of assault by formations from the Wagner Group, an infamous paramilitary organization that has helped lead the Kremlin’s war effort in parts of Ukraine, the city has remained in Ukrainian control.
In Bakhmut, Mr. Zelensky saluted the courage of the soldiers fighting in grueling conditions.
“It seems to me that the Bakhmut heroes should get the same that every person gets,” Mr. Zelensky said, according to Freedom TV, a Ukrainian network that covered the trip. “I wish their children, families — that everything is fine with them, that they have warmth, that they have health.”
Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly spoken about that the “very difficult” situation in parts of Donbas, with the fighting around Bakhmut particularly vicious. He said in a recent address that Russian forces had “destroyed” Bakhmut, turning the city, once home to 70,000 people, into “burned ruins.”
On previous trips to the front, Mr. Zelensky went to raise Ukraine’s blue-and-gold flag after Russian occupation forces were driven out of cities including Izium in the northeast and Kherson in the southwest. Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut came as Ukrainian troops say they have pushed Russians out of some positions on the edge of the city, although the situation there is far from stable.
The Ukrainian forces holding Bakhmut are from a mix of units, including the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and the 58th Motorized Infantry Brigade, that have been worn down by the nonstop Russian assaults. Other units relocated from southern Ukraine have arrived in recent weeks to bolster the defense of the city.
While Russian forces are digging in and establishing more fortified defensive positions across much of the 600-mile front, they have continued to assault Bakhmut from multiple directions. They have suffered heavy losses and there have been widespread reports of low morale and disorder in the Russian ranks, with convicts recruited to fight clashing with other units.
The British military defense intelligence agency said on Monday that Russian recruits in eastern Ukraine are “likely being threatened with summary execution” if they fail to heed orders to assault Ukrainian positions.