Ukraine president visits front-line areas as new phase nears

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president on Thursday made his third visit in two days to areas that have felt the brunt of Russia’s war, with a trip to the southern Kherson region that was retaken from the Kremlin’s forces, and as a senior Kyiv commander hinted that 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 front line in the region, which is still partially occupied.

While in Kherson on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with local security officials and inspected infrastructure damaged by Russian strikes, his office said.

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy 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 monthslong counteroffensive that won back Kherson.

Also Wednesday, Zelenskyy met with troops in the eastern Donetsk region, stopping by 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.

Zelenskyy’s 48 hours of visits far from Kyiv — and close to the front line — came 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. Putin has made it clear he wants to have control there.

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

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram post that the Russian assault on Bakhmut was causing Russian forces to “lose considerable strength.”

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

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

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

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

In other developments:

— European Union leaders endorsed a plan to send Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months. The EU said at a summit Thursday they would also deliver missiles if Kyiv requests them.

— Ukraine's General Staff retracted a claim that units of the Russian army had left Nova Kakhovka, a strategically important city in the occupied part of the Kherson region on the eastern side of the Dnieper. It said the claim was made erroneously “as a result of incorrect use of available data.” The city, which had a prewar population of around 45,000 people, possesses strategic value: A dam there is one of only two road crossings of the lower stretches of the Dnieper

— 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 Defense Ministry said Thursday that the remaining MiG-29s will be handed over to the Ukrainian side in the coming weeks. — Finland said Thursday that it would deliver additional defense material, including three Leopard 2 armored mine-clearing vehicles, to Ukraine in a military aid package worth 161 million euros ($175 million). 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 Thursday that despite expanding the national defense industry’s capacity, the Balkan country — a member of NATO and the EU — won't export weapons to Ukraine. Bulgaria has been in the grip of a political crisis and is heading in April toward its fifth general elections in the last two years.

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Karl Ritter, The Associated Press