Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday the situation in four parts of Ukraine he claimed to have annexed earlier this year was “extremely difficult.”
Speaking to members of Russia’s security services, Putin highlighted the Donetsk and Luhansk areas in eastern Ukraine, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south.
“The people living there, the citizens of Russia, rely on you, on your protection,” Putin said.
Russia has never fully controlled any of the four areas that were part of Putin’s September annexation claim. His move was rejected by the international community.
Putin called Tuesday for Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, to boost surveillance at the country’s borders and within the country in order to combat new threats from abroad and traitors at home.
His comments came a day after he made a rare visit to Minsk, extolling the benefits of cooperation with neighboring ally Belarus, stoking fears in Kyiv that plans for a joint ground offensive are in the works.
Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev said he believed Putin’s meeting with his Belarusian counterpart would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country’s troops into Ukraine, after providing Russian troops with a launching pad for the invasion in February.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Putin said during the news conference. “There is simply no expediency in this … It’s not a takeover, it’s a matter of policy alignment.”
Asked about this comment, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said it should be treated as the “height of irony,” given it was “coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment, right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next-door neighbor.”
Price added that Washington would continue to watch very closely whether Belarus would provide additional support to Putin and would respond “appropriately” if it does.
The Kremlin has dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role in the conflict. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were “groundless” and “stupid.”
None of the journalists present at the meeting Monday asked Putin or Lukashenko about the war.
Both leaders restricted their answers to the ever-closer economic and defensive alignment between the two former Soviet states and the excitement of Sunday’s World Cup football (soccer) final in Qatar.
The visit occurred hours after another round of Russian drone strikes targeted Kyiv, during which the Ukrainian Air Force said its air defenses shot down 30 unmanned aerial vehicles. At least three people were injured, and nine buildings were damaged in the assault on the Ukrainian capital region, Russia’s third in six days. The latest series of attacks appear to be aimed at the destruction of the Ukrainian energy grid, causing sweeping blackouts amid subzero temperatures.