MOSCOW, Feb 23 — President Vladimir Putin today hailed Russia’s “heroes” fighting in Ukraine on the eve of the second anniversary of the Kremlin’s offensive, with Moscow bolstered by gains against ammunition-starved Ukrainian troops.

Putin’s message came on Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland Day”, a holiday that has always been an occasion for military pomp and Kremlin-sponsored patriotism.

This year the holiday comes with Putin inspired by the capture of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka and revelling in the US Congress blocking vital military aid to Kyiv.

“You are our true national heroes,” Putin said in a video message addressed to troops and veterans.


On the same day, US President Joe Biden announced fresh sanctions on more than 500 targets that he said were meant to “ensure Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home.”

Putin has spent recent days flying in bomber planes, handing out medals to troops and touting a “turning point” in Ukraine.

He has mocked Ukraine’s “chaotic flight” from Avdiivka, which fell to Moscow last week after months of bloody battles.


Putin has also been bolstered at home, ahead of an election certain to extend his long rule: a massive crackdown has all but crushed dissent and the Russian leader’s main opponent — Alexei Navalny — is dead.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has been weakened by the blocking of US aid, its failed counter-offensive and worsening ammunition shortages.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged an “extremely difficult” situation on the front.

Two years fighting a bigger and richer army has taken its toll on Ukraine’s stretched forces.

“It’s extremely hard,” Ukrainian infantryman Oleksiy told AFP in eastern Ukraine, caked in mud after returning from the trenches.

“We don’t have weapons like they have. You know, they have factories for production, and us? We beg for weapons. That’s the way it is,” the 32-year-old said.

‘Pride’ and ‘hurt’

In Moscow, Putin laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin walls.

His church ally Patriarch Kirill, a vehement supporter of the Ukraine offensive, once again sanctified it.

“We glorify today the feat of soldiers who are heroically fighting on the borders of Russia, defending its sovereignty and independence,” he said in a letter to Putin.

Russia has banned all criticism of its campaign, punishing thousands for denouncing the offensive, with repression comparable to late Soviet levels.

On the streets of Moscow, AFP found both supporters and opponents of the offensive.

“I feel pride for our men,” said 27-year-old Nadezhda as she strolled near the Kremlin.

“In the last two years that (pride) became even stronger.”

But Konstantin, who normally works in theatre but now has a temporary job as a waiter, had the opposite feeling.

He was “always against” any armed conflict, he said, adding that he once served in the army.

“I’m upset by it,” he said, hoping to see peace talks.

The two would not give their full names.

‘Upset’ but not ‘discouraged’

In Ukraine, foreign dignitaries began to arrive to mark the anniversary of Moscow’s assault, which has killed thousands of civilians, on top of a huge number of military deaths.

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrived in the western city of Lviv today, Zelensky said.

US senator Chuck Schumer also arrived in the city, close to the Polish border.

The Democrat said on social media that he wanted to “show the Ukrainian people that America stands with them” and to “learn about the arms Ukraine vitally needs.”

Despite recent setbacks, Zelensky has remained defiant.

Kyiv has taken confidence from continued successes on the Black Sea, where it says it has destroyed a third — 25 vessels — of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

But its land campaign has stalled, and it is there that Moscow is seeking to press its advantage and drive further into Ukraine following the capture of Avdiivka.

Kyiv warned Friday that Russia is intensifying attacks around the new “hot spot” of Maryinka, a town to the west of the Moscow-controlled stronghold of Donetsk city.

The Russian army said this week it had also captured the eastern village of Pobeda and that its troops were “moving westwards” after capturing Avdiivka.

Ukrainian troops, however, remained determined.

Oleksiy, who was holding the fallback lines outside Avdiivka, said that while the fall of the industrial hub affected morale, troops were ready to fight on.

“Absolutely, of course we were upset. But nevertheless, nobody’s discouraged,” he said, with an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his neck.

“If we retreat, they will move all along the front line.” — AFP