Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly visited occupied territories in Kherson and Luhansk on Tuesday, April 18, Russian state media widely reported.
Dressed in a bulky suit and coat, possibly to cover body armour, the Russian leader made his second trip to Ukraine, having visited occupied Mariupol last month. At the same time, just a few hundred kilometres away, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met his troops near Avdiivka, the war-torn city in Donetsk oblast.
According to Kremlin reports, Putin spoke with commanders at the headquarters of the ‘Dnieper’ troops in the Kherson Region and the headquarters of the National Guard ‘East’ group in Luhansk. The commanders updated Putin about the situation on the ground in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk Oblasts as both Russian and Ukraine prepare for a major spring offensive.
“It is important for me to hear your opinion on how the situation is developing, to listen to you, to exchange information. I would ask you to start your report with the situation in the Kherson direction, then in the Zaporizhzhia direction,” Putin told senior commanders, CNN reported.
However, diligent journalists at the investigative Russian news outlet Agentstvo claimed that the visit had actually taken place last week, rather than on April 18. They pointed out that in a video of Putin handling an icon at the Kherson base, he said: “There's Easter coming up, isn't it?”, despite celebrations for Orthodox Easter already passing.
"These words of Putin allow us to conclude that the meeting took place before April 16 (Orthodox Easter Sunday)," Agentstvo wrote. The footage has since been edited and replaced with “Now it’s Easter”.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded by saying that the video had been filmed on Monday, April 17 instead. A similar mistake caught the Kremlin off guard during Putin’s trip to Mariupol on March 19, when a woman in the background could be heard shouting “It's all lies!” in a video published on the Kremlin website.
Others accused the Russian president of being too fearful to visit Ukrainian territory so close to the fighting and that he had instead sent a body double, citing his change in demeanour and ear size as evidence. According to Ukraine's head of military intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, Kyiv has identified at least three body doubles used by the Russian leader that have appeared more regularly since the start of the full-scale invasion, although it is not confirmed that a body double was sent to Mariupol, Luhansk or Kherson.
Speculation also emerged that the footage was filmed in Russia rather than Ukraine, although open-source intelligence specialists geolocated the military headquarters in Kherson. The base appears to be in a former children's summer camp close to Crimea, far from the southern front, according to Twitter user Oliver Alexander.
In the meantime, Zelenskiy presented Ukrainian servicemen with state awards for bravery in the Donetsk town of Avdiivka, closely brushing the front lines, the Kyiv Independent reported. Thanking the troops for their service, the Ukrainian president led a moment of silence for fallen soldiers.
In March, Ukrainian military spokesperson Oleksii Dmytrashkivskyi predicted that Avdiika could become a second Bakhmut after Russian troops made significant gains. Nevertheless, Ukrainian troops have held on to the city with little loss of territory in the past month.