Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday issued an order to expedite Russian citizenship for residents of Russia parts of southern Ukraine largely held by its armed forces while lawmakers in Moscow passed legislation designed to bolster Russia’s overburdened army.
Putin’s decree, which relates to the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, could allow Russia to increase its grip on an area that lies between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia captured in 2014 Has.
The Russian army is engaged in a bitter struggle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbass. In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to strengthen its stretched military machineRussian lawmakers agreed to abolish the age limit of 40 for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.
A description of the bill on Parliament’s website said older recruits would be allowed to operate precision weapons or serve in engineering or medical positions. The head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand” skills.
Russian officials say only volunteer contract soldiers are being sent to fight in Ukraine, although they acknowledge that some conscripts were inadvertently sent into the fighting in the early stages of the war.
Three months after Russia’s invasionPutin visited a military hospital in Moscow on Wednesday and met with some soldiers wounded in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement.
It was his first known visit to soldiers fighting in Ukraine since he started 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 reporter from the state TV channel Russia1 published a video clip on Telegram showing Putin in a white doctor’s coat talking to a man in hospital gowns, believed to be a soldier.
The man, filmed from behind standing up with no visible wounds, tells Putin he has a son. The President, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, replies, “He will be proud of his father,” before shaking the man’s hand.
Zelenskyy reiterated on Wednesday that he was ready to negotiate directly with Putin, but said Moscow must retreat to the positions it held before the invasion and show it was ready “to move from bloody war to diplomacy.” .
“I believe that it would be a right step for Russia,” Zelenskyy told the newspaper’s leaders World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, via video link.
He also said Ukraine wants to expel Russian troops from all conquered territories. “Ukraine will fight until it has recaptured all its territories,” said Zelenskyy. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”
In his late-night address to the nation, Zelenskyy sharply rebuffed those in the West who are suggesting that Ukraine cede control of Russian-held territories in order to reach a peace deal.
Those “great geopoliticians” who propose this disregard the interests of ordinary Ukrainians – “the millions of people who actually live on the territory that they want 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 agreed in 1938 to cede territories 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 Donbass and where Moscow-backed separatists hold large areas as self-proclaimed independent republics.
During a visit to the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin hinted that they could become part of “our Russian family.”
A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region has predicted that the region would become part of Russia. An official in Zaporizhia said on Wednesday that the region’s pro-Kremlin government would also aim to do the same.
Melitopol, the second-largest city in the Zaporizhia region, plans to start issuing Russian passports in the near future, said acting mayor Galina Danilchenko, installed by Russia.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who personally attended the Davos Forum, called on friendly countries — notably the United States — to provide multiple missile systems to Ukraine so that it could attempt to retake lost territory.
“Every day that someone sits in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals and ponders whether or not to do something costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.
Zelenskyy said his army is facing the fiercest attack in the east by Russian forces, which in some places have many more weapons and soldiers. He called for even more military aid from the West, “without exception, without restrictions. Enough to win.”
The governor of the Lugansk region, Serhiy Haidai, accused Russia of targeting civilian shelters 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 being shelled with every possible weapon in the enemy’s possession.”
Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk are the largest remaining cities held by Ukraine in Luhansk. The region is “more than 90 percent” controlled by Russia, Haidai said, adding that a key supply route for Kiev’s troops has come under pressure despite fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Haidai said the road between Lysychansk and the city of Bakhmut in the south-west it was “constantly shelled” and Russian sabotage and reconnaissance troops were approaching.
Donetsk Region Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said four civilians were injured in two rockets met the city of Pokrovsk early Wednesday.
A blow left a crater at least three meters deep, in which lay the remains of what appeared to be a still-smoldering rocket. A row of low terraced houses near the strike sustained significant damage.
“There is no longer any place to stay. Everything is smashed,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother of two who lived in one of the row houses.
In a previous strike about a month ago, the windows were shattered and replaced with plastic sheeting. Kurbonova thinks that probably saved their lives since no glass was flying around.
In other developments, Russia said Ukraine’s strategic port of Mariupol was operational again after a nearly three-month siege that ended last week with the surrender of the last Ukrainian militants holed up in a giant steel mill. Russia now has full control of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the separatists in Donetsk plan to set up a tribunal to try the militants and that Moscow welcomes the action.
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