KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday issued an order to expedite Russian citizenship for residents of parts of southern Ukraine largely held by his forces, while lawmakers in Moscow passed a draft law to strengthen the stretched Russian army.
Putin’s decree applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions could allow Russia to strengthen its grip on the territory between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
The Russian military is engaged in an intense battle for the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbass. In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to beef up its stretched military machine, Russian lawmakers have agreed to scrap the 40-year age limit for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.
A description of the bill on Parliament’s website said older recruits would be allowed to use precision weapons or work in engineering or medical positions. Russian parliament defense committee chairman Andrei Kartapolov said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand” skills.
Russian officials say only voluntary contract soldiers are sent to fight in Ukraine, although they acknowledge that some conscripts were mistakenly sent into combat early in the war.
Three months into the Russian invasion, Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow on Wednesday and met with wounded soldiers in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement.
It was his first known visit with soldiers fighting in Ukraine since he launched the war on February 24. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited wounded soldiers, civilians and children, including at times when Russian troops were fighting on the outskirts of Kyiv.
A journalist from the state broadcaster Russia1 posted a video clip on Telegram showing Putin in a white coat talking to a man in hospital clothes, presumably a soldier.
The man, filmed from behind standing and without visible injury, tells Putin that he has a son. The president, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, replies: “He will be proud of his father”, before shaking his hand.
Zelenskyy reiterated on Wednesday that he would be willing to negotiate directly with Putin, but said Moscow needed to retreat to the positions it held before the invasion and needed to show it was ready “to move from bloody war to diplomacy”.
“I think it would be a good step for Russia,” Zelenskyy told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, via video link.
He also said that Ukraine wanted to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas. “Ukraine will fight until it recovers all its territories,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”
In his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskyy strongly pushed back against those in the West who suggest Ukraine cede control of areas occupied by Russian troops in the interest of reaching a peace deal.
Those “big geopoliticians” who suggest this ignore the interests of ordinary Ukrainians – “the millions who actually live in the territory they offer to trade for an illusion of peace,” he said. “We must always think of people and remember that values are not just words.”
Zelenskyy compared those who advocate giving Russia a piece of Ukraine to those who, in 1938, agreed to cede territory to Hitler in hopes of preventing World War II.
Russia already had a program to speed up the naturalization of people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern Ukrainian provinces that make up the Donbass and where Moscow-backed separatists hold large areas as independent republics. self-proclaimed.
During a visit to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said they could be part of “our Russian family”.
A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region predicted that the region would become part of Russia. A Zaporizhzhia official said on Wednesday that the region’s pro-Kremlin administration would also seek that.
Melitopol, the second-largest city in the Zaporizhzhia region, plans to start issuing Russian passports in the near future, Russia-based acting mayor Galina Danilchenko said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who attended the Davos forum in person, called on friendly countries – especially the United States – to provide Ukraine with several rocket launchers so that it can attempt to regain lost territory.
“Every day that someone sits in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and wonders whether or not they should do something, costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.
Zelenskyy said his army was facing the fiercest possible attack in the east by Russian forces, which in some places have many more weapons and soldiers. He pleaded for even more military aid from the West, “without exception, without restriction. Enough to win.
Luhansk region governor Serhiy Haidai accused Russia of targeting shelters where civilians were hiding in the city of Sievierodonetsk.
“The situation is serious,” Haidai said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press. “The city is constantly bombarded with all possible weapons in the possession of the enemy.”
Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk are the largest remaining Ukrainian-held cities in Luhansk. The region is “more than 90%” controlled by Russia, Haidai said, adding that a key supply route for troops from Kyiv was under pressure despite strong Ukrainian resistance.
Haidai said the road between Lysychansk and the southwestern town of Bakhmut was “constantly shelled” and Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams were approaching.
Donetsk region governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said four civilians were injured when two rockets hit the city of Pokrovsk early Wednesday.
A strike left a crater at least three meters (10 feet) deep, with the remains of what appeared to be a rocket still smoldering. A row of low terraced houses near the shore suffered significant damage.
“There is no longer a place to live. Everything is broken,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother of two who lived in one of the terraced houses.
An earlier strike about a month ago blew up the windows, which were replaced with plastic sheeting. Kurbonova thinks it probably saved their lives because there was no flying glass.
In other developments, Russia said Ukraine’s strategic port of Mariupol was functional again after a nearly three-month siege that ended with the surrender last week of the last Ukrainian fighters locked in a giant steel plant. . Russia now has full control of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the Donetsk separatists planned to set up a court to try the fighters and that Moscow welcomed the move.
Elena Becatoros in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, and Jamey Keaten in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.
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