On June 21, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Ukraine used President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise visit to the frontline city of Lysychansk to misrepresent Russia’s military gains.
“Against the backdrop of military failures, the Kiev regime continues to spread false stories in the best tradition of Kvartal-95 in order to somehow stop the panic and flight of its servicemen from the Donbas,” Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said at a news briefing.
“Kvartal-95” is the TV entertainment production company that Zelenskyy, a former comedian and actor, founded in 2003. One of its most famous productions was the 2015-2019 fictional TV show “Servant of the People,” in which Zelenskyy played the role of a school teacher who ended up being elected president.
Zelesnkyy’s morale-building visits to the Russian front in Ukraine’s east were carefully documented in official photos and videos released to news media by the presidential media office.
They came during a period of intense fighting that continues. But the characterization that Ukraine, in publicizing the trip, was spreading “false stories” amid “military failures,” is false.
While Russia has made grudging territorial gains in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, Konashenkov’s claim of failures are contradicted by independent analysts and U.K. intelligence. Despite superior strength, Russian forces have suffered setbacks and even moved to replace commanders.
Zelenskyy first reported the visits in a late-night video posted to his Telegram channel on June 5. Zelenskyy’s office published videos and photographs of his meetings with local civilians and troops in Lysychansk, which was under attack by Russians.
In a video, Zelenskyy said that he and members of his team had visited the war’s frontlines and met with the heads of local security, police and military forces, as well as regional heads and mayors of cities, including some under Russian occupation.
“I am proud of everyone I met and shook hands with,” Zelenskyy said. He added that he delivered to Ukraine defenders “something very important,” while providing no details.
In one of the pictures published on the president’s website Zelenskyy is seen holding the 24th Mechanized brigade flag its motto “Milites Regnum” visible in the picture. The brigade has been fighting in the Donbas since 2014.
Western media highlighted the trip. “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited Lysychansk and Soledar, two cities close to some of the most intense fighting between his country's troops and Russian forces,” Australia’s ABC News reported on June 6, citing an account by Reuters, which noted that it could not verify locations in the official video and photos.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a nonpartisan research group, has provided some of the most detailed and dispassionate public analysis of the fighting in Ukraine, updated almost daily. These reports do not square with Konashenkov’s claim.
In its assessment published June 5, the ISW said:
“Ukrainian forces continued to conduct limited and localized but successful counterattacks against Russian positions throughout Ukraine on June 5, including retaking large areas of Severodonetsk – the city in Luhansk Oblast the Kremlin has concentrated the majority of its forces on capturing.”
“Russian forces continued to hold their defensive lines and fire at Ukrainian positions along the Southern Axis.
“Ukrainian forces likely killed Russian Major General Roman Kutuzov near Popasna.”
In his June 21 briefing, Konashenkov said, “[T]the grouping of Ukrainian troops in the area of Lysychansk is cut off from supplies and is under fire control of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” He also claimed Ukraine’s 79th Airborne Assault Brigade had been abandoned by its commanders and that a mechanized unit lost two-thirds of its personnel.
While Polygraph.info could not confirm the latter two claims, the ISW in its June 6 assessment identifies Lysychansk as an active area of combat and Russian encirclement as aspirational.
“Russian forces escalated their pace of fire against Severodonetsk, Lysychansk … The Russian escalation in artillery fire in and around Severodonetsk is likely intended to support Russian operations within the city itself and interdict Ukrainian forces from effectively deploying reserves and conducting resupply efforts in areas under heavy fire.”
Also on June 6, the U.K. Ministry of Defense reported in an intelligence alert that, “Over the last 24 hours, Ukrainian forces have counterattacked in the contested city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, likely blunting the operational momentum Russian forces previously gained…”
In its June 7 report, ISW stated:
“Russian forces continued offensive operations in several locations in eastern Ukraine but did not secure any confirmed gains in ground assaults on June 7. Russian forces have likely captured most of Severodonetsk, but ISW cannot confirm the exact control of terrain within the city…
“The Kremlin’s efforts to censor information about deceased military personnel and ongoing forced mobilization within the DNR and LNR are reportedly exacerbating domestic tensions and opposition to the war in Russia …
“Domestic Russian complaints about the maltreatment and lack of preparation among Russian combat forces are likely prompting the Kremlin to take rhetorical steps to curb discontent.”
As of June 22, Russia still had not secured control over Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Although Russian forces had gained ground, the U.K. ministry reported that, “Heavy shelling continues as Russia pushes to envelop the Severodonetsk area … Russia is likely preparing to attempt to deploy a large number of reserve units to the Donbas.”
In its June 21 assessment, the ISW reported:
“The Kremlin recently replaced the commander of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces and may be in the process of radically reshuffling the command structure of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a possible purge of senior officers blamed for failures in Ukraine.”
After identifying commanders involved in the shakeup, the ISW said:
“Such drastic rotations within the Russian military, if true, are not actions taken by a force on the verge of a major success and indicate ongoing dysfunction in the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.”
Regarding the fighting around Lysychansk, the ISW said:
“This Russian advance is a clear setback for Ukrainian defenses in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, but Russian forces will likely require further protracted battles with Ukrainian forces similar to the block-by-block fighting seen in Mariupol and Severodonetsk in order to capture Lysychansk.”
In other words, based on ISW and U.K. intelligence reports, the combat situation at the time of Zelenskyy’s early June visit was fluid, and the trip was not made amid Ukrainian “military failures.” Since then, Russia has made modest gains, but also faces fierce resistance.
It is unclear what prompted the Russian Defense Ministry challenge what was a 10-day-old news story. Konashenkov strongly implied that Zelenskyy’s trip may have been faked, but he provided no specific proof.
Some Ukrainian news media said Konashenkov’s remarks may have been triggered by a recent Facebook post about the visit from a Ukrainian lawmaker who participated.
On June 20 and June 21, Ukrainian member of parliament Mariana Bezuhla wrote about Zelenskyy’s visit in Lysychansk in two Facebook posts that included photographs Bezuhla said she took herself. The June 20 post read (in Ukrainian): “Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Lysychansk. Not a long time ago. He came under fire, in secret, to support and see with his own eyes. He was with us.”
In her June 21 Facebook post, Bezuhla shared another photograph of Zelenskyy surrounded by servicemen. It was captioned: “Regarding Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit. This was June 5. Yes, under the fire. Secretly from the enemy. In the very heart of the battle for Donbas. His arrival not only shocked and inspired, but also led to a number of decisions that are important for the future.”
Bezuhla said she was able to briefly talk with the president and was permitted to take photos.
During the first days and weeks of the full scale military invasion in Ukraine top Russian officials and state media made numerous false claims saying that Zelenskyy has been posting pre-recorded videos of himself in Kyiv, while he had abandoned Ukraine and fled to safety. Polygraph.info reviewed and debunked several such claims in February.