The presidents of Ukraine and Russia both presented medals on Tuesday: President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the beleaguered eastern city of Bakhmut to recognize Ukrainian soldiers as artillery thundered in the distance, while the President Vladimir V. Putin honored Russian occupation figures and propaganda leaders inside the safe and gilded halls of the Kremlin.
The contrast captured the intractability of a war that began 300 days ago, with Mr Zelensky displaying a new challenge and Mr Putin signaling no letup in his onslaught.
As Russian forces dig across much of the 600-mile front after a series of battlefield defeats, Moscow has intensified its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure with wave after wave of missile and drone strikes aimed at plunging the nation in darkness.
On the battlefield, Russia’s repeated assaults on Bakhmut, a city once home to 70,000 people in the eastern Donbass region, have been relentless and catastrophic, conjuring up images of the wastelands left behind after the deadliest battles of the First World War.
Mr Zelensky left early in the morning for perhaps the most dangerous trip to the front lines since fighting began in February, traveling more than 440 miles from the capital. Dressed in a plain military green jacket, he presented medals to soldiers in combat uniform and posed for photos with the soldiers as he saluted their “superhuman” courage.
“The East is resisting because Bakhmut is fighting,” he told the troops, adding, “In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is defended here for all of us.”
Mr Zelensky continued his praise for Ukraine’s defenders in his evening speech, in which he noted that he had left Donetsk.
Mr. Putin’s parallel awards ceremony involved more pomp and circumstance – and less risk. It came hours after Mr Putin released a video message to employees of Russian security agencies in which he warned that the situation in parts of Ukraine under Russian control was “extremely difficult”.
And it seemed intended to show Ukraine and its Western allies that Mr Putin was determined to continue his fight, despite what US officials say Russian casualties now exceed 100,000 dead and wounded.
Those honored in the Kremlin on Tuesday at a televised event included some of Russia’s most prominent pro-war figures. There were the Russian-installed rulers in the four Ukrainian regions that Mr Putin illegally annexed in September, although much of the area is still under Ukrainian control. There was Semyon Pegov, a widely read Russian war blogger who was wounded in Ukraine. And there was Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of one of the Kremlin’s most important propaganda outlets, the RT television channel.
“Thank you for snatching our people from the bloody mouths of these man-eaters, despite the pain and the blood,” Ms Simonyan said at the ceremony, apparently referring to the Kremlin’s false claim that Ukraine perpetrated genocide. against Russian speakers. “And we’ll help you hit those man-eaters as much as you demand.”
It was a reminder that Russia’s powerful propaganda apparatus, like Mr. Putin himself, is increasingly acknowledging Russia’s struggles on the front, even as it continues to hide the scale of Russia’s losses. army. At the same time, he presents the war as existential – claiming that the real enemy is a NATO that seeks to destroy Russia – and tries to prepare the Russians for further sacrifices.
On Tuesday, Mr. Putin seemed unwilling to cede the limelight to Mr. Zelensky. Russian media published reports that the Russian leader visited the “special military operations zone” – the Kremlin’s term for the war zone – last Friday.
Mr Putin, in a brief speech at the end of the ceremony on Tuesday, said these were “difficult and unusual times” and hailed the Russian soldiers as “heroes”.
“When a country or even each person develops, advances, he always overcomes certain difficulties on this path,” Putin said. “But today, it does come with particular challenges.”