Putin’s decree applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions could allow Russia to strengthen its grip on the territory between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
The Russian military is engaged in an intense battle for the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbass.
In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to beef up its stretched military machine, Russian lawmakers have agreed to scrap the 40-year-old age limit for people signing their first voluntary military contracts.
A description of the bill on Parliament’s website said older recruits would be allowed to use precision weapons or serve in engineering or medical roles.
Russian parliament defense committee chairman Andrei Kartapolov said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand” skills.
Russian authorities said that only voluntary contract soldiers were sent to fight in Ukraine, although they admitted that some conscripts had been drawn into combat by mistake at the start of the war.
Three months after the start of the Russian invasion of the neighboring country, Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow on Wednesday and met with wounded soldiers in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement posted on its website.
The event was the Russian leader’s first publicly known visit with soldiers fighting in Ukraine since he launched the war on February 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited wounded soldiers, civilians and children, including at times when Russian troops were fighting on the outskirts of kyiv.
A journalist from the state broadcaster Russia1 posted a video clip on Telegram showing Putin in a white coat talking to a man in hospital clothes, presumably a soldier.
The man, filmed from behind standing and without visible injury, tells Putin that he has a son. The president, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, replies: “He will be proud of his father”, before shaking his hand.
Zelenskyy reiterated on Wednesday that he would be ready to negotiate directly with Putin, but said Moscow needed to retreat to the positions it held before the invasion and needed to show it was ready “to move from bloody war to diplomacy”.
“I think it would be a good step for Russia,” Zelenskyy told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, via video link.
He also said that Ukraine wanted to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas. “Ukraine will fight until it recovers all its territories,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”
Russia already had a program to speed up the naturalization of people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern Ukrainian provinces that make up the Donbass and where Moscow-backed separatists hold large areas as independent republics. self-proclaimed.
During a visit to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said they could be part of “our Russian family”.
A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region predicted that the region would become part of Russia. A Zaporizhzhia official said on Wednesday that the region’s pro-Kremlin administration would also seek that.
Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia’s second-largest city, plans to start issuing Russian passports in the near future, Russian-installed acting mayor Galina Danilchenko said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has said Ukraine is not ready to cede control of areas occupied by Russian forces in a bid to reach a peace deal, saying some Western lobbyists are pushing kyiv to do so.
“Ukrainian society has paid a terrible price and will not allow anyone to take a step in this direction – not a single government, not a single country,” Podolyak said on Telegram. He said instead ceding territory would only freeze the conflict, not resolve it.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who attended the Davos forum in person, called on friendly countries, especially the United States, to equip the Ukrainian army with multiple rocket launcher systems so that they could attempt to regain the territory taken by the Russians.
“Every day that someone sits in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and wonders whether or not they should do something, costs us lives and territories,” Kuleba said.
On Wednesday, Russian rockets pounded towns away from the front line in Donbass. Luhansk provincial governor 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 bombarded with all possible weapons in the possession of the enemy.”
Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Lysychansk are the largest remaining settlements held by Ukraine in Luhansk. The region is “more than 90%” controlled by Russia, Haidai said, adding that a key supply route was under pressure despite strong Ukrainian resistance.
Haidai said the road between Lysychansk and the southwestern town of Bakhmut is seen as crucial to keeping Ukrainian troops in the area supplied. Haidai said it was “constantly shelled” and Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams were approaching the area.
Donetsk Regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said four civilians were injured when two rockets hit the city of Pokrovsk early Wednesday.
A strike left a crater at least three meters (10 feet) deep, with the remains of what appeared to be a rocket still smoldering. A row of low terraced houses near the shore suffered significant damage.
“There is no longer a place to live. Everything is broken,” said Viktoria Kurbonova, a mother of two who lived in one of the terraced houses.
An earlier strike about a month ago blew up the windows, which were replaced with plastic sheeting. Kurbonova thinks it probably saved their lives since there was no flying glass.
“I was grabbing my child and couldn’t find him in the dust,” she said.
In other developments, Russia said the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol was functional again after a nearly three-month siege that ended with the surrender of the last Ukrainian fighters.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said the military had completed clearing the port.
Russian forces have taken full control of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, after the last defenders locked in a giant seaside steelworks laid down their weapons last week.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the Donetsk separatists planned to set up a court to try the fighters and that Moscow welcomed the move.