LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday morning made an unannounced visit to Mykolaiv, a war-torn city in southern Ukraine that Kyiv has delayed in fierce resistance.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit, his first visit to the city, comes a day after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, in a defiant address, sought to rally support and blame the West for the ongoing fallout from the war as the two leaders struggle to convince their public and the world of that they have an advantage in the fight.
During the first weeks of the war, Mr. Zelenskiy was constantly in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, often addressing the nation from easily identifiable locations, seeking to reassure his shell-shocked citizens.
But increasingly, he ventured closer to the front lines, demonstrating that his troops held these unstable areas firmly enough to allow him to move safely. The trips have become a tool to boost morale among the troops and among the population, as well as to divert attention from the terrible losses that are inflicted during the ongoing fierce fighting.
Mr. Zelenskiy made his first trip outside the Kyiv region in late May, when he visited Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which had just repelled a determined Russian attack.
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While in the city, which he said had “taken a terrible blow,” he met with the troops, presented the fighters with awards, and spoke of the chance for areas devastated by Russian attacks to “find a new face” after they were rebuilt.
Nikolaev, a strategically important river port located between Mariupol and Odessa, was seen as Russia’s main target when the conflict broke out in February. Now it’s only a few miles from a Ukrainian counter-offensive aimed at retaking the nearby city of Kherson, lost at the start of the war.
Then, when the Russian troops were on the outskirts of the city, it seemed only a matter of time before Nikolaev would also be forced to capitulate. But, despite a long siege by Russian troops, which left the city beaten and defeated, resistance intensified.
Even as piles of bodies piled up in the city morgue, the residents continued to resist. A few weeks after the start of the siege, Ukrainian troops managed to regain full control of the city, pushing Russian troops to the southeast.
Footage from Saturday’s visit, posted on Zelensky’s office’s official Telegram channel, shows the president looking up at the nine-story government building that was hit by a rocket in late March, killing dozens of people.
During a visit to the city hospital, Mr. Zelensky thanked the staff for their work and for treating patients like their families.
“Because you are heroic people, you saved the lives of everyone, both military and civilian,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement released by his office after the visit. “I want to wish you and your family and friends good health!”
But despite Mr. Zelenskiy’s attempts to show that all is well, Russian forces continue to shell Ukrainian positions along the border between Mykolaiv Oblast and neighboring Kherson, according to an assessment by the Institute for the Study of War on Friday. The ongoing artillery barrage is likely to deter Ukrainian counterattacks in the area, the institute said.
And the human casualties of the war cannot be discounted: in all corners of the country, funerals are held daily for soldiers who died on the eastern front lines. Even in the relative safety of Lvov to the west, the cemetery of the war dead is overflowing, with new graves being dug up outside its original perimeter every day.
It has also become clear that foreign fighters and others who have joined the fighting in Ukraine face the same danger.
On Saturday, the family of 49-year-old Grady Kurpasi, a former US Marine Corps officer, confirmed that he was the third American missing in the country.
“Grady didn’t go there to fight, but to help Ukrainian civilians, and he unfortunately fell into that,” said George Heath, a friend who spoke for Mr. Kurpasi’s family.
After tracing his phone to an area occupied by Russian troops, they believe he is in captivity.
Earlier this week, the families of Alex Druke, 39, a former US Army staff sergeant who served twice in Iraq, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huying, 27, also said they were missing in Ukraine.