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President Vladimir Putin has issued an order to fast track Russian citizenship for residents in parts of southern Ukraine largely held by his forces, while legislators in Moscow passed a bill to strengthen the stretched Russian army.

Putin’s decree applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions could allow Russia to strengthen its hold on territory that lies between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the move by Moscow.

Destroyed Russian tanks litter a road near Irpin in Ukraine. Russia has launched a plan to bolster troop numbers for its army after months of heavy fighting. (Getty)

“The decree of the president of Russia is legally null and void and will have no legal consequences. This decision will not affect the citizenship of Ukrainians on the territories temporarily occupied by Russia.”

The Russian army is engaged in an intense battle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to bolster its stretched military machine, Russian MPs agreed to scrap the age limit of 40 for individuals signing their first voluntary military contracts.

A description of the bill on the parliament website indicated older recruits would be allowed to operate precision weapons or serve in engineering or medical roles. The chair of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the measure would make it easier to hire people with “in-demand” skills.

Russian authorities have said that only volunteer contract soldiers are sent to fight in Ukraine, although they have acknowledged that some conscripts were drawn into the fighting by mistake in the early stages of the war.

Three months into Russia’s invasion of the neighbouring country, Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow and met with some soldiers wounded in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits wounded Russian soldiers at a military hospital. (AP)

In other developments, Ukraine’s president said that Russia must pull back to its pre-war positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon as it focuses its fire on key regions in the east three months into the war.

Speaking by video link at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed a willingness to negotiate with Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear it too is ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”

“It’s possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say at least something, I mean pulling back troops to where they were before February 24,” the day Russia’s invasion began, he said. “I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make.”

Putin makes first visit to wounded Russian veterans

Zelenskyy also made clear that Ukraine wants to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas.

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