LVIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky paid an unannounced visit on Saturday morning to Mykolaiv, a war-ravaged city in southern Ukraine that has been held up by Kiev as a sign of fierce resistance.
Mr Zelensky’s visit, his first to the city, came a day after Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin tried in a defiant speech to rally support and blame the West for the lingering effects of the war, while the two leaders compete to convince their audiences and the world that they have the upper hand in battle.
In the early weeks of the war, Mr. Zelensky was a fixture in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, often delivering addresses to the nation from easily recognizable locations, while trying to restrain his horrified citizens.
But increasingly he ventured closer to the front lines, proof that his forces have a firm enough grip on these unstable areas to allow him to move safely. The trips have become a tool to raise morale among troops and the public, and to distract from the terrible losses inflicted as fierce fighting continues.
Mr Zelensky made his first trip outside the Kiev region at the end of May when he visited Kharkov, the country’s second largest city, which had just repulsed a determined Russian attack.
While in the city, which he described as having suffered “horrific blows”, he encountered troops, presented awards to combatants and described an opportunity for areas devastated by Russian attacks to “take on a new face”. when they were rebuilt.
Mykolaiv, a strategically important river port between Mariupol and Odessa, was seen as a prime target of Russia when the conflict started in February. Now it is just miles from a Ukrainian counter-offensive aimed at retaking the nearby city of Kherson, which had been lost early in the war.
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At the time, with Russian troops on the outskirts of the city, it seemed only a matter of time before Mykolaiv would have to capitulate as well. But despite a long siege by Russian troops that left the city battered and broken, resistance mounted.
Even when the bodies were piled high in the city’s morgue, the residents remained defiant. Weeks after the siege began, Ukrainian forces regained full control of the city and pushed Russian forces back to the southeast.
In footage from Saturday’s visit on the official Telegram channel of Mr. Zelensky was seen as the president looked up at the shell of a nine-story government building that was hit by a rocket in late March, killing dozens.
During a visit to a city hospital, Mr. Zelensky staff for their work and for treating patients as they would treat their own family.
“Because you are heroic people, you have saved the lives of everyone – military and civilian alike,” said Mr. Zelensky in a statement from his office after the visit. “I want to wish you and your family and friends good health!”
But despite the effort of Mr. Zelensky to project the idea that all is well, Russian forces have continued shelling Ukrainian positions along the border between the Mykolaiv region and neighboring Kherson, according to a Friday assessment by the Institute for the Study of War. The relentless artillery strike is likely to deter Ukrainian counter-attacks in the area, the institute said.
And the human toll of war cannot be wished away, with daily funerals in every corner of the country for soldiers killed on the eastern front lines. Even in the relative safety of the western city of Lviv, a cemetery for the war dead is overcrowded, with new graves being dug outside its original perimeter every day.
It has also become clear that foreign fighters and others who have joined the war effort in Ukraine face the same danger.
On Saturday, the family of Grady Kurpasi, 49, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, confirmed he was the third American to go missing in the country.
“Grady didn’t go there to fight but to help Ukrainian citizens, unfortunately he got into this,” said George Heath, a friend who acted as spokesman for Mr Kurpasi’s family.
After tracking his phone to an area occupied by Russian troops, they believe he is being held captive.
Earlier this week, the families of Alex Drueke, 39, a former US Army staff sergeant who toured Iraq twice, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, also said the two were missing in Ukraine.
A State Department spokesman said on Saturday that officials had seen the photos and videos of “these two American citizens allegedly captured by Russian forces in Ukraine”. The department was in contact with the men’s families, Ukrainian authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the spokesman said, but declined to comment further.
On Friday, short videos purporting to show the two men were posted to YouTube, in which they said in Russian, “I am against war.” It was unclear when the videos were being shot and by whom, but it appeared the men were being coached in what to say.
Mr Huynh’s fiancée, Joyce Black, said Friday that after watching one of the videos, she “felt very emotional, but very hopeful and never lost faith.” She added: “I’d like to have him at home.”
Alan Yuhas and Maham Javaid contributed reporting from New York.