Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Moscow was “doing everything right” in its nearly eight-month invasion of Ukraine despite a string of embarrassing defeats, as Kyiv said it was “stronger than ever” and would emerge victorious.
Putin’s comments came hours after Kremlin-installed officials in the southern region of Kherson urged residents to leave after Kyiv said its forces were advancing on the region’s eponymous main city.
Moscow also hinted at the potentially wide extent of the damage dealt to the Crimea bridge — the sole connecting its mainland to the annexed Ukrainian peninsula — following a blast, saying it could take many months to complete repairs.
“What is happening today is not pleasant. But all the same, (if Russia hadn’t attacked on February) we would have been in the same situation, only the conditions would have been worse for us,” Putin told reporters after a summit in the capital of Kazakhstan.
“So we’re doing everything right,” he insisted.
He did, however, acknowledge that Russia’s ex-Soviet allies were “worried.”
Ukraine, which is clawing back territory in the east as well as in the south, feted its first Defenders Day public holiday since the start of Moscow’s invasion, pledging victory.
“On October 14, we express our gratitude… gratitude to everyone who fought for Ukraine in the past. And to everyone who is fighting for it now. To all who won then. And to everyone who will definitely win now,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address to mark the occasion.
“The world is with us, more than ever. This makes us stronger than ever in history,” Zelensky said, referring to unprecedented Western aid.
Putin has described the explosion on the Crimea bridge on Saturday as a “terrorist” act and in retaliation battered Ukraine for two days with missiles that hit energy facilities and caused blackouts and disruption to water supplies.
He said on Thursday that “for now” there was no need to continue the massive salvo of missiles that hit cities — several far from the front line — and left at least 20 civilians dead. He explained the Russian military had other objectives.
‘Our aim is not to destroy Ukraine’
“Our aim is not to destroy Ukraine,” Putin added.
The Crimea bridge is logistically crucial for Moscow. It is a vital transport link for moving military equipment to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
But the bridge is also symbolically important to Putin, who inaugurated it in 2018, four years after he annexed the peninsula, drawing a chorus of Western condemnation.
The missile barrage on Monday and Tuesday, he said, was direct retaliation for the blast on the bridge.
Russia’s cabinet, in a decree signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, ordered the company tasked with the “design and restoration of destroyed elements of … the Crimean Bridge” to complete the work by July 1, 2023.
The date gives an indication of the extent of the damage. Russian officials have otherwise been circumspect about the lasting impact of the incident.
Hours after the blast — which Russian authorities blamed on Ukraine special forces — Moscow announced that both road and rail traffic had been restored.
Ukrainian forces mounted a counter-offensive in the south towards the end of the summer and have been pushing closer and closer to the main city in the Kherson region, also called Kherson.
On Friday, the Moscow-installed authorities in the region renewed a call for residents to temporarily leave, with reports that Ukrainian forces had been gaining ground near Kherson.
Advance on Kherson
“The bombardments of the Kherson region are dangerous for civilians,” Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the pro-Russian regional administration said and urged residents to take a trip for “rest and recreation” elsewhere.
But in the east, pro-Russian forces said they were closing in on the industrial city of Bakhmut after reporting the capture of two villages on the city’s outskirts this week.
An official of the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic, a pro-Kremlin breakaway region in east Ukraine, said “active hostilities were underway” within Bakhmut.
“Our forces are confidently marching and liberating this settlement,” the official, Andriy Marochko, was quoted as saying by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
UN envoy Pramila Patten told AFP in an interview that rapes and sexual assaults attributed to Moscow’s forces in Ukraine were part of a Russian “military strategy” and a “deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims”.
“When you hear women testify about Russian soldiers equipped with Viagra, it’s clearly a military strategy,” the UN special representative on sexual violence said on Thursday. “It is clearly a deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims.”
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