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Putin Makes Rare Visit to Ukraine War Headquarters

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a surprise visit to a command post coordinating the Russian war effort in Ukraine, the Kremlin said on Saturday, in a rare demonstration of hands-on involvement in the military campaign’s execution and planning.

Mr. Putin spent the day on Friday in the military headquarters in an undisclosed location, presiding over a general meeting with Russia’s top brass and holding separate ones with various commanders, the Kremlin said in a statement. In his opening remarks, carried on Russian state television, Mr. Putin said he had come to listen to his commanders’ proposals about the Russian military’s “short- and medium-term movements.”

As Russia’s military campaign has suffered a series of painful and embarrassing setbacks, Mr. Putin has distanced himself from the blunders, clearly unwilling to associate himself with defeat. All the while he has maintained a studied calm, insisting against all reason that the war is “going according to plan.”

For instance, Mr. Putin never commented publicly about his army’s retreat from the city of Kherson — the only Ukrainian regional capital Russia had captured since the invasion in February. He also never made public visits to the front lines or even to territories captured by Russia. Instead, Mr. Putin concentrated on economic affairs, such as opening a turkey breeding factory in Siberia in November, trying to show that it was all business as usual in Russia.

The Friday meeting demonstrated a shift in that approach, Russian war analysts said. While few people doubt that any major military decision can be made in Russia without Mr. Putin’s approval, the fact that the Friday meeting was made public meant that the Kremlin wants to send a clear signal that the Russian leader is in charge and is interested in the war’s progress, said Yuri Fyodorov, a Russian military analyst.

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“Mr. Putin demonstrated that he is responsible for the situation at the front,” Mr. Fyodorov said in a telephone interview. “This is not a coincidence in light of reports that Russia might be getting ready to launch an offensive in Ukraine.”

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, the commander of the country’s forces in Ukraine, and the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, center, were among those attending the meeting with Mr. Putin.Credit…Pool photo by Gavriil Grigorov

Besides the stagecraft designed to show he is in control, the meeting served a number of other ends for Mr. Putin, analysts said. It presented a rare occasion for him to appear together with his top commanders, the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and the chief of general staff, Valeri V. Gerasimov, who have faced heavy criticism from Russian military bloggers and are frequent targets of rumors of their dismissal. And by mentioning “mid-term” planning, analysts said, he was able to emphasize his determination, if any was needed, to see the war through to its conclusion.

In the early stages of the war, Mr. Putin delegated the decision-making to various branches of the military. That has blurred lines of responsibility, but also undermined coordination between troop formations. In October, as it became clear even to the war’s supporters that Russia’s initial drive into Ukraine had failed, Mr. Putin appointed Gen. Sergei Surovikin as the commander of the country’s forces.

Some analysts have speculated that General Surovikin was appointed as a scapegoat to shift the blame from Mr. Putin. For instance, shortly after his appointment, the general announced that “tough decisions” might be coming. In early November, he called for the withdrawal from Kherson.

Dmitri Kuznets, a military analyst for the independent, Russian-language news outlet Meduza, said that Mr. Putin’s visit to the war headquarters was a way to demonstrate that the Russian president “keeps his finger on the pulse and wants the upcoming decisions to be associated with him.”

However, he said, “there are no signs that Russia is preparing a large-scale ground offensive operation.”

“Russia is trying to build a new army now because the old one has been depleted,” he added, noting that Russian troops are trying to master modern war methods on the fly — something many military analysts say is better done through years of training away from the pressures of the battlefield.

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