Russian President Vladimir Putin put on a show of supposed strength by firing a sniper rifle during a boot camp visit as fears grew of a looming “false flag” attack by Moscow on a key dam in Ukraine’s Kherson region ahead of Kyiv’s latest counter-offensive.
The Russian Ministry of Defense’s TV channel, Zvezda News, released a propaganda video Wednesday showing Putin inspecting a training ground in the Ryazan region of western Russia.
Putin, dressed in a black coat and accompanied by Ministry of Defense Sergei Shoigu, inspected new conscripts’ weapons and gear, and watched combat exercises.
During a stop at the firing range, the 70-year-old Putin put on googles and noise-cancelling headphones, and laid down on the ground behind a net to fire several shots at a distant target.
Putin also asked the mobilized forces about their skill level and confidence, and inquired whether they had any complaints. When the troops replied that they had no problems to report, the Russian leader pounded his fist on a table as a sign of his approval.
It is believed the video trotting out armed and well-equipped soldiers was meant to counter damaging images and videos that have been circulating on social media, showing dejected conscripts complaining about their threadbare — and sometimes non-existent — gear.
Ever since Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists, an even greater number of men have fled Russia into neighboring countries to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine.
Morale among recruits was said to be low, with Ukraine reporting having received calls from thousands of Russians asking how they could surrender.
Putin’s latest display comes as Russian forces are facing the prospect of losing control of the Kherson region in the south of Ukraine — one of four areas that were annexed last month following referendums that were dismissed as illegal by Kyiv and the West.
Fears are growing that Russian troops in the region are planning to blow up the massive Nova Kakhovka dam to cover their retreat and delay Ukraine’s advance — and blame the attack on Ukraine.
In a televised address Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the West to warn Russian not to blow up the hydraulic station, saying that such a “terrorist attack” would cause a catastrophe.
Zelensky said Russians had already mined the dam, which holds back an enormous reservoir that dominates much of southern Ukraine, and were planning to blow it up ahead of what could be one of the most important battles of the war.
“Now everyone in the world must act powerfully and quickly to prevent a new Russian terrorist attack. Destroying the dam would mean a large-scale catastrophe,” he said.
Russia accused Kyiv earlier this week of planning a rocket attack on the dam. General Sergei Surovikin, the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, said Ukrainian forces had already used US-supplied HIMARS missiles against it in what Ukrainian officials called a sign Moscow could be planning to blow it up and blame Kyiv.
Neither side produced evidence to back up their allegations.
Destroying the dam could send a wall of water flooding villages below it, including much of the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces hope to recapture in a major advance.
Damage to the dam would also wreck the system of canals that irrigates southern Ukraine, including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
“If Russia is preparing such a terrorist attack, if it is seriously considering such a scenario, it means the terrorists are clearly aware that they will not be able to keep not only Kherson, but also the entire south of our country, including Crimea,” Zelensky said.
He called on world leaders to impress upon Moscow that blowing up the dam would be treated “exactly the same as the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Ukraine has imposed an information blackout from the Kherson front, but Russian commander Surovikin said earlier this week that the situation was “already difficult” for his forces and Russia was “not ruling out difficult decisions” there.
The Kremlin on Friday sidestepped a question about whether or not Putin had given an order for his forces to withdraw from Kherson, referring the question to the defense ministry.
Ukraine’s armed forces general staff said up to 2,000 newly-mobilized Russians had arrived in the region “to replenish losses and strengthen units on the contact line.”
Russian-installed occupation officials have begun what they say is the evacuation of 60,000 civilians across the Dnieper River from towns on its west bank. They accused Kyiv of shelling a ferry, killing at least four civilians. Ukraine acknowledged an attack, but said it came after a civilian curfew.
With Post wires