Zelensky visits Ukraine’s frontline in east for first time since invasion began
- His office posted a video on Telegram of him wearing a bulletproof vest and being shown destroyed buildings in and around Kharkiv
- ‘We will restore, rebuild and bring back life, in all towns and villages where evil came,’ the post said
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has visited his country’s war-ridden east for the first time since the Russian invasion, on a trip to Kharkiv region, from where Moscow has retreated in recent weeks.
His office posted a video on Telegram of him wearing a bulletproof vest and being shown heavily destroyed buildings in Kharkiv and its surroundings.
“2,229 buildings have been destroyed in Kharkiv and the region. We will restore, rebuild and bring back life. In Kharkiv and all other towns and villages where evil came,” the post said.
Footage also showed him awarding medals to soldiers and visiting burned-out military vehicles left behind by the Russian army.
“I feel endless pride for our defenders,” Zelensky said. “Every day they risk their lives and fight for Ukraine’s freedom.”
The Ukrainian leader has been based in Kyiv since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale attack of Ukraine on February 24.
Zelensky said in a later post that Russia “should have understood long ago that we will defend our land to the last man. They have no chance. We will fight and we will definitely win”.
He also met local officials to discuss reconstruction programmes for the region and called on them to “find cool projects” to rebuild destroyed areas.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold “direct serious negotiations” with Ukraine’s President Zelensky.
During an 80-minute conversation with the Russian president, the two EU leaders “insisted on an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops”, the German chancellor’s office said.
They also demanded Russia free 2,500 Ukrainian fighters taken as prisoners of war after surrendering earlier this month at a sprawling steelworks in the ravaged port city of Mariupol.
“Russia is ready to help find options for the unhindered export of grain, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports,” Putin told Macron and Scholz, the Kremlin said.
The Russian leader said difficulties in supplying grain to world markets were the result of “erroneous economic and financial policies of Western countries”.
He warned the West that ramping up the supply of weapons to Ukraine was “dangerous” and could further destabilise the situation in the pro-Western country.
His remarks came after US media reports that Washington is preparing to send advanced long-range rocket systems to further help Ukraine.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, a highly mobile system capable of firing up to 300km (186 miles) that Kyiv has said it badly needs.
But he said Washington was “still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield”.
Russia claimed to have surrounded the city of Severodonetsk, as it wages an all-out war for the eastern Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
In the city, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said “constant shelling” had made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.
Regional officials reported that Russian forces were “storming” Severodonetsk after trying unsuccessfully to encircle it. The fighting knocked out power and cellphone service, and a humanitarian relief centre could not operate because of the danger, the mayor said.
About 143km (89 miles) south of the Russian border, Severodonetsk has emerged in recent days as the epicentre of Moscow’s quest to capture all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.
Evacuation was “very unsafe”, with priority given to the wounded and those in need of serious medical help, said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the city’s military and civil administration.
The water supply was also increasingly tenuous, as a lack of electricity meant pumps at city wells no longer functioned, and residents had gone more than two weeks without a cellphone connection, he said.
In his daily address President Zelensky said the situation was “very difficult, especially in those areas in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions, where the Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some result for itself”.
He said Ukraine was doing “everything” to defend Donbas.
As the country faces an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation, an Australian man was reported to have been killed recently while supplying aid.
A death notice appeared in Tasmania’s Mercury newspaper identifying the man as Michael Charles O’Neill, 47, with a tribute on Facebook saying he had been “driving the wounded and injured from the front line”. An Australian foreign affairs department spokesperson confirmed the death.
Additional reporting by dpa