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Zelensky visits frontline areas ahead of counteroffensive ‘very soon’

Ukraine’s president made his third visit in two days to areas hard-hit by Russia’s invasion.

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Volodymyr Zelensky awards a soldier in hospital in Donetsk region on Wednesday

Ukraine’s president has made his third visit in two days to areas that have felt the brunt of Russia’s war.

On Thursday, Volodymyr Zelensky made a trip to the southern Kherson region retaken from the Kremlin’s forces.

It comes as a senior Kyiv commander hinted a brewing Ukrainian counteroffensive could come “very soon”.

Ukraine took back control of the Kherson region’s capital, also called Kherson, at the end of last year, pushing out the Russian occupiers who had captured the city in the weeks following the start of Moscow full-scale invasion more than a year ago.

The Dnieper River now marks the frontline in the region, which is still partially occupied.

While in Kherson, Mr Zelensky met local security officials and inspected infrastructure damaged by Russian strikes, his office said.

On Wednesday, Mr Zelensky visited Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city in northeastern Ukraine.

Kyiv’s troops recaptured Kharkiv from the Russians last September as part of the same months-long counteroffensive that won back Kherson.

Also on Wednesday, Mr Zelensky met troops in the eastern Donetsk region, stopping at a hospital to see wounded soldiers and giving state awards to the defenders of Bakhmut, a wrecked city that is now a symbol of Ukraine’s dogged resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

Mr Zelensky’s 48 hours of visits far from Kyiv — and close to the frontline — come as improving weather sets the stage for possible new offensives by both sides.

The biting winter weather, followed by mud as the ground thawed out, have prevented major changes on the battlefield and the war has largely been deadlocked in recent months.

Ukraine is now starting to receive modern weapons, including tanks, from its western allies, who are also training Ukrainian troops to use them.

Russian forces have been digging in where they hold territory in the four provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.

Mr Putin has made it clear he wants to have control there.

Ukraine’s ground forces commander said on Thursday that Russian forces are “exhausting themselves” in their grinding push to take Bakhmut, giving Kyiv a window of opportunity for a counterstrike.

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram post that the Russian assault on Bakhmut is causing Russian forces to “lose considerable strength”.

A Ukrainian soldier looks from their position on the frontline in Bakhmut
A Ukrainian soldier looks from their position on the frontline in Bakhmut (Libkos/AP)

“Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliia and Kupiansk,” Col Gen Syrskyi added, referencing Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year that pushed Russia back from the country’s capital and large swathes of the north-east.

Meanwhile, Russia has kept up its long-range attacks using artillery, missiles and drones.

The death toll from a Russian drone attack on Wednesday on a secondary school and dormitories south of Kyiv rose to nine, Ukrainian emergency services reported.

Russia on Wednesday also hit a nine-storey apartment building in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia where at least one person was killed.

In other developments:

The first four of 13 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets that Slovakia decided to give Ukraine have been handed over to the Ukrainian air force.

The Slovak Defence Ministry said the remaining MiG-29s will be handed over to the Ukrainian side in the coming weeks.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front line in Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers on the front line in Bakhmut (Libkos/AP)

Finland said it would deliver additional defence material, including three Leopard 2 armoured mine-clearing vehicles, to Ukraine in a military aid package worth 161 million euros.

Finland has so far delivered six Leopard vehicles to Ukraine, officials say. The new aid package, the 14th such package from Helsinki so far, also contains heavy weapons and munitions.

Bulgaria’s president said that despite expanding the national defence industry’s capacity, the Balkan country will not export weapons to Ukraine.

Nato member Bulgaria and nine other ЕU member states are not participating in the joint procurement of ammunition for Ukraine.

Bulgaria has been in the grip of a political crisis and is heading in April towards its fifth general elections in the last two years.

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