As President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a rare acknowledgment of military challenges in the war, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine highlighted Russia’s struggles on Tuesday by making a bold visit to a frontline city that Moscow has failed to capture despite months of withering bombardment.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit — to Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region — was announced by his office hours after Mr. Putin said that conditions for Russia were “extremely complicated” in that region and three others in eastern and southern Ukraine that Moscow has illegally tried to annex, but does not fully control.
But far from relenting in his war effort, Mr. Putin signaled that he would continue to fight in Ukraine and would seek to crack down more harshly at home and in the illegally annexed areas. In a transcript of a video address published early Tuesday by the Kremlin, the Russian leader called on his security agencies to intensify their efforts “to put a firm stop to the activities of foreign special services and to promptly identify traitors, spies and diversionists.”
The video was released on a holiday devoted to Russia’s security officials, and Mr. Putin used the occasion to highlight a “rapidly changing global situation and the emergence of new threats and challenges” to Russian security.
Russia claimed Ukraine’s Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions in September, after orchestrated referendums, a move widely denounced by Ukraine and its Western allies as a violation of international law. But Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield have continued. In November, Russian forces ceded control of the city of Kherson, the only regional capital they had captured in nearly 10 months of war. And they have failed to break through Ukrainian defenses in Bakhmut despite unrelenting bombardments and paramilitary assaults.
In the video address, Mr. Putin acknowledged the “difficult tasks” facing the Russian security agencies working in the annexed areas, which he referred to as “Russia’s new regions.” He framed the problem as one of ensuring the security, rights and freedoms of “Russian citizens,” as he claims the populations of those areas to be.
Mr. Putin charged the Russian authorities with strengthening their efforts, especially the border services of the F.S.B., the successor to the Soviet security agency, the K.G.B. “Maximum composure, concentration of forces is now required from counterintelligence agencies, including the military,” Mr. Putin said.
He said that the F.S.B. should ensure that places where citizens gather “should be under constant control,” along with “strategic facilities, transport and energy infrastructure,” and that Moscow would be sending additional equipment, weapons and “experienced personnel” to the annexed regions.
Later, at a ceremony marking the Russian holiday, Mr. Putin awarded medals to some of the best-known hard-line figures in the war, yet another signal that Russia is set on continuing its invasion.
The honorees at the Kremlin included the Russian-imposed heads of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia illegally annexed. He also bestowed government honors on Semyon Pegov, a hawkish war blogger who was injured in Ukraine, and on Margarita Simonyan, the editor of one of the Kremlin’s main propaganda arms, the RT television network.
“Thank you for wresting our people out of the bloody mouths of these man-eaters, despite the pain and the blood,” Ms. Simonyan said at the ceremony. “And we will help you whack these man-eaters as much as you demand it from us.”
Mr. Putin said in a brief speech at the end of the ceremony that these were “difficult, unusual times.”
“When a country or even every person develops, moves forward, it always overcomes certain difficulties on this path,” he said. “But today, it’s indeed being accompanied by particular challenges.”