Vladimir Putin has told a Russian soldier wounded in Ukraine that he will “definitely” return to the front line once has recovered.
In a carefully stage-managed hospital visit – his first meeting with troops who have fought in Ukraine – the Russian president asked officers about their wounds and families but stopped short of discussing the war.
Putin went to a military hospital in Moscow, where bodyguards wearing white coats were seen in the corridors.
After an official told him one of the wounded soldiers was eager to join up again, he asked the man if he really intended to keep serving.
When the man replied: “Of course I do,” Putin, who wore a white coat over his suit, said: “You definitely will.”
The injured men appeared tense and stood to attention at their hospital beds, dressed in pyjamas. They were reportedly recovering from shrapnel and gunshot wounds but did not display any obvious injuries typical of troops injured in war zones.
Putin did not ask them about their experiences on the battlefield or comment on the ongoing hostilities.
The Russian military has not updated its official death toll since March, but British defence chiefs this week said it is “likely” that Russia has lost as many troops in three months of war in Ukraine as the Soviet Union did in nine years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a government meeting later on Wednesday, Putin hailed Russian troops and said: “Those people have risked their lives and health for the sake of the people and children of the Donbas and for the sake of Russia. They all are heroes.”
A few hours earlier, he had signed a decree to fast-track Russian citizenship for the residents of two Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions in a surprise move likely to harm the chance of peace talks.
The decree streamlines applications for Ukrainians from Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, two regions in the country’s south which have been under Russian control since the start of the war.
Earlier on Wednesday, Vladimir Rogova, a self-proclaimed official of the Russian-controlled administration of the Zaporizhzhya region told the Russian RIA Novosti news agency: “Zaporizhzhya can have only one future – as part of Russia.”
Following Putin’s announcement, Mr Rogov said his office was already gearing up to issue Russian passports: “It’s a hectic task, but a joyful one,” he added.
Russia on Wednesday fired cruise missiles at targets in the city of Zaporizhzhya, which is still under Ukrainian control. The attack destroyed Ukraine’s major aircraft engine factory and a shopping mall, killing one person and injuring three more people.
In the neighbouring Kherson region, a self-appointed head of the administration set up by the occupying forces said they had started accepting applications for Russian passports.
“Many of our residents have been waiting for this opportunity. We’ve already fielded questions and applications,” Vladimir Saldo was quoted as saying.
Parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya would be the only noticeable gains Putin can present to the Russian public as the war, conceived as a lightning-quick operation, entered its fourth month.
Residents across southern Ukraine overwhelmingly greeted Russian soldiers with hostility. In several villages, people were seen trying to push tanks away from their streets and angrily confronting troops.
In Kherson, thousands of people rallied with Ukrainian flags for weeks before the Russian military began to violently disperse the protests and abduct political activists.
The two regions are important to Russia as a “land bridge” linking the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea in the south with separatist-held parts of eastern Ukraine.
In Mariupol, almost obliterated by air strikes before it was captured by Russian forces earlier this month, separatist authorities started issuing Russian passports on Wednesday, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor in exile, said. He added: “The annexation has actually begun.”
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