Zelensky Visits Besieged City of Avdiivka

President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka on Tuesday. He received a briefing from the commander of Ukraine’s “Donetsk” Operational-Tactical Group, responsible for Avdiivka and the surrounding area, and issued awards to troops from various units serving there. Geolocated footage indicated the Ukrainian president came within just a few kilometers of the frontline, well within the range of Russian shelling.

Located near a vital railway junction, Avdiivka has been on the frontline since 2014, when Ukrainian troops retook the city from Russian-led separatist forces after a Moscow-supported insurrection in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military subsequently constructed extensive fortifications in Avdiivka and nearby towns. Most of Avdiivka’s pre-war population of 32,000 has fled amid fighting that has left much of the city in ruins.

Russian forces, chiefly comprising troops from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, have made only minor progress in the area since last year. In March, Moscow’s forces, reportedly reinforced by regular Russian units, took several towns north and northeast of Avdiivka while pushing up from the south, aiming to encircle the city. However, Russia has made no discernible progress in the area recently.

Putin Makes Another Trip to Occupied Ukraine

President Vladimir Putin visited the headquarters of Russia’s “Dnieper” Group of Forces in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, the Kremlin announced Tuesday. According to the Kremlin, he then traveled to the “Vostok” HQ of Rosgvardia, Russia’s National Guard, in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Geolocated footage indicates the Dnieper HQ is in a children’s summer camp on the Arabit Spit, which runs from southern Kherson Oblast to eastern Crimea. The site lies well beyond the range of Ukraine’s rocket artillery systems. The Kremlin said the visit occurred Monday, although an independent Russian outlet asserted it occurred earlier.

The Kremlin appeared to confirm that “Dnieper” is Russia’s fifth grouping of forces fighting in Ukraine. Previously, Russia organized its troops in Ukraine into four groupings: “Zapad,” “Tsentr,” “Yug,” and “Vostok,” corresponding roughly to Russia’s Western, Central, Southern and Eastern military districts. They are responsible for the Kupyansk, Lyman, Donetsk, and southern Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia directions, respectively. The Dnieper grouping is responsible for the western part of Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast, where Russian troops retreated across the Dnieper River last fall. When precisely the Dnieper grouping was established remains unclear. The Russian Defense Ministry publicly mentioned it for the first time in mid-March, but other Russian sources referenced it as early as February.

Putin’s meetings offer insights into the continually changing leadership of Putin’s so-called “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. At the “Dnieper” headquarters, Putin “heard reports by Commander of the Airborne Forces Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of the Dnepr Group of Forces Col. Gen. Oleg Makarevich and other military commanders,” according to the Kremlin. In January, unofficial Russian sources — and eventually the UK defense ministry — reported that Teplinsky had been fired. They attributed his dismissal to disagreements with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff, who had assumed command of the overall operation earlier that month. Russian sources said Makarevich replaced Teplinsky, who had just taken command last year after his predecessor was fired.

But various Russian sources, along with the UK defense ministry, later said Teplinsky had, in fact, not only retained (or regained) his post but had assumed a greater role in planning the overall operation. On Tuesday, the Kremlin’s spokesman confirmed that Teplinsky now serves as deputy commander of Russia’s “Joint Group of Forces” in Ukraine in addition to his role as Airborne Forces chief. The spokesman also confirmed that Lt. Gen. Andrei Kuzmenko, who attended the Dnieper HQ meeting, serves as commander of Russia’s “Vostok” Group of Forces. Russian sources had previously reported that Kuzmenko took command of Vostok after its previous chief was fired last month, but some said he was merely serving as interim commander.

While visiting Rosgvardia’s East HQ, Putin “heard reports by Colonel General Alexander Lapin and other top-ranking officers on the situation in this sector,” the Kremlin said. Those other officers included Rosgvardia chief Col. Gen. Sergei Boyko. “Tsentr” chief Lt. Gen. Alexander Mordvichev was also present, as were colonel generals Yevgeny Nikiforov and Sergey Kuzovlev, who command Russia’s “Zapad” and “Yug” groups, respectively. Each of those three groups has changed commanders at least once since the war began. Lapin was fired as “Tsentr” commander last fall but reportedly became Ground Forces chief of staff in January, coinciding with Gerasimov’s appointment as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine. Lapin now appears to have regained a significant role in the war.

This was Putin’s second trip to occupied Ukrainian territory since Moscow invaded last year. A month ago, he visited the southeastern city of Mariupol, which Russian forces captured in May. The Kremlin may have hoped Putin’s most recent trip would burnish his domestic image or, as the popular Russian Telegram channel Rybar speculated, boost Russian morale ahead of Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive. But the trip likely also reflects Putin’s efforts to better understand the military situation on the ground through direct communication with his group commanders, bypassing Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Gerasimov and Shoigu were noticeably absent during the meetings although the Kremlin spokesman said they each joined one of the meetings via teleconference.