By RICARDO MAZALAN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an order Wednesday to fast track Russian citizenship for residents of parts of southern Ukraine largely held by his forces, while lawmakers in Moscow passed a bill to strengthen the stretched Russian army.
Putin’s decree applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions could allow Russia to strengthen its hold on territory that lies between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.
The Russian army is engaged in an intense battle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to bolster its stretched military machine, Russian lawmakers agreed to scrap the age limit of 40 for those signing their first voluntary military contracts.
A description of the bill on the parliament website indicated older recruits would be allowed to operate precision weapons or serve in engineering or medical positions. The chair of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand” skills.
Russian officials say only volunteer contract soldiers are sent to fight in Ukraine, although they acknowledge that some conscripts were put into the fighting by mistake in the early stages of the war.
Three months into Russia’s invasion, Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow on Wednesday and met with some soldiers wounded in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement.
It was his first known visit with soldiers fighting in Ukraine since he launched the war on Feb. 24. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited wounded soldiers, civilians and children — including at times when Russian troops were fighting on the outskirts of Kyiv.
A reporter for the state-run Russia1 TV channel posted a video clip on Telegram showing Putin in a white medical coat talking to a man in hospital attire, presumably a soldier.
The man, filmed from behind standing up and with no visible wounds, tells Putin that he has a son. The president, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, responds: “He will be proud of his father,” before shaking the man’s hand.
Zelenskyy reiterated Wednesday that he would be willing to negotiate with Putin directly but said Moscow needs to retreat to the positions it held before the invasion and must show it’s ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”
“I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make,” Zelenskyy told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by video link.
He also said Ukraine wants to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas. “Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”
In his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskyy strongly rebuffed those in the West who suggest Ukraine cede control of areas occupied by Russian troops for the sake of reaching a peace agreement.
Those “great geopoliticians” who suggest this are disregarding the interests of ordinary Ukrainians — “the millions of those who actually live on the territory that they propose exchanging for an illusion of peace,” he said. “We always have to think of the people and remember that values are not just words.”
Zelenskyy compared those who argue for giving Russia a piece of Ukraine to those who in 1938 agreed to cede territory to Hitler in hopes of preventing World War II.
Russia already had a program to expedite the naturalization of people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern Ukraine provinces that make up the Donbas and where the Moscow-backed separatists hold large areas as self-declared independent republics.
During a visit to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin indicated they could become part of “our Russian family.”
A Russia-installed official in the Kherson region has predicted the region would become part of Russia. An official in Zaporizhzhia said Wednesday that the region’s pro-Kremlin administration would seek that as well.
Melitopol, the Zaporizhzhia region’s second-largest city, plans to start issuing Russian passports in the near future, said the Russia-installed acting mayor, Galina Danilchenko.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who attended the Davos forum in person, called for friendly countries — particularly the United States — to provide Ukraine with multiple launch rocket systems so it could try to recapture lost territory.
“Every day of someone sitting in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and considering whether they should or should not do something, costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.
Zelenskyy said his army was facing the fiercest attack possible in the east by Russian forces, which in some places have many more weapons and soldiers. He pleaded for even more military assistance from the West, “without exception, without restrictions. Enough to win.”
The governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, accused Russia of targeting shelters where civilians were hiding in the city of Sievierodonetsk.
“The situation is serious,” Haidai said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press. “The city is constantly being shelled with every possible weapon in the enemy’s possession.”
Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk are the largest remaining towns held by Ukraine in Luhansk. The region is “more than 90%” controlled by Russia, Haidai said, adding that a key supply route for Kyiv’s troops was coming under pressure despite stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Haidai said the road between Lysychansk and the city of Bakhmut to the southwest was “constantly being shelled” and that Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams were approaching.
The governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said four civilians were injured when two rockets hit the town of Pokrovsk early Wednesday.
One strike left a crater at least three meters (10 feet) deep, with the remnants of what appeared to be a rocket still smoldering. A row of low terraced houses near the strike suffered significant damage.
“There’s no place to live in left. Everything is smashed,” Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother of two who lived in one of the terraced houses, said.
An earlier strike about a month ago blew out the windows, which were replaced with plastic sheeting. Kurbonova thinks that probably saved their lives since there was no glass flying around.
In other developments, Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol was functional again following a nearly three-month siege that ended with the surrender last week of the last Ukrainian fighters holed up in a giant steel plant. Russia now has full control of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the separatists in Donetsk planned to set up a tribunal to put the fighters on trial and that Moscow welcomes the action.
Elena Becatoros in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, and Jamey Keaten in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.
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