July 20th, 2024

An emboldened, confident Putin says there will be no peace in Ukraine until Russia’s goals are met

By Harriet Morris, The Associated Press on December 14, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with judges of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation marking the national holiday celebrated on December 12 - Constitution Day, at the Novo-Ogaryovo State residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Mikhail Tereshchenko, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) – Emboldened by battlefield gains and flagging Western support for Ukraine, a relaxed and confident President Vladimir Putin said Thursday there would be no peace until Russia achieves its goals, which he says remain unchanged after nearly two years of fighting.

It was Putin’s first formal news conference that Western media were allowed to attend since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022. The highly choreographed session, which lasted over four hours and included questions from ordinary Russians about things like the price of eggs and leaky gymnasium roofs, was more about spectacle than scrutiny.

But while using the show as an opportunity to reinforce his authority ahead of an election in March that he is all but certain to win, Putin also gave a few rare details on what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

He said that a steady influx of volunteers means there is no need for a second wave of mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine – a move that was deeply unpopular. He said there are some 617,000 Russian soldiers there, including around 244,000 troops who were mobilized a year ago to fight alongside professional forces.

“There will be peace when we will achieve our goals,” Putin said, repeating a frequent Kremlin line. “Victory will be ours.”

Putin, who has held power for nearly 24 years and announced last week he is running for reelection, was greeted with applause as he arrived in the hall in central Moscow. He didn’t hold his traditional news conference last year amid setbacks in Ukraine.

But with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleading for more U.S aid amid a stalling counteroffensive and fracturing Western support, he decided to face reporters once more – even though only two Western journalists were called on for questions.

Putin highlighted Russia’s successes in Ukraine and the flagging support by Kyiv’s allies.

“Ukraine today produces nearly nothing, they are trying to preserve something but they don’t produce practically anything themselves and bring everything in for free,” he said. “But the freebies may end at some point and apparently it’s coming to an end little by little.”

Putin noted “an improvement in the position of our troops all along” the front line.

“The enemy has declared a big counteroffensive, but he hasn’t achieved anything anywhere,” he added.

The session dealt mostly with Ukraine and domestic issues, but a few international topics were addressed:

– Putin said he wanted to reach a deal with Washington to free U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich and U.S. businessman Paul Whelan, both held in Russia on espionage-related charges. “We’re not refusing to return them,” Putin said but added an agreement that satisfies Moscow was “not easy.”

– He deplored the death of thousands of civilians in Gaza amid the Israeli-Hamas war, citing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called it a “graveyard for children.” He urged greater humanitarian aid, adding that Russia proposed setting up a field hospital in Gaza near the border with Egypt but Israel responded it would be unsafe.

– Asked what he would have told himself from today’s perspective when he started his first term in 2000, Putin said he would have warned against “naivety and excessive trustfulness regarding our so-called partners” in the West.

The 71-year-old leader appeared calm and relaxed during the questions, although he frequently cleared his throat, blaming the air conditioning.

Ordinary citizens submitted questions alongside those from journalists, and Russian media said at least 2 million were sent in advance, giving him a chance to appear personally involved in resolving their problems. That’s especially vital for Putin ahead of the March 17 election.

Irina Akopova of the southern Krasnodar region, who addressed Putin as “my favorite president,” complained about the rising price of eggs. He apologized to her and blamed “a glitch in the work of the government” for not increasing imports quickly enough.

Children in Russian-annexed Crimea asked him about a leaking roof and mold in their sports hall.

Immediately after the show, Russia’s main criminal investigation agency declared it had launched inquiries into alleged wrongdoing by local authorities in regions whose residents asked Putin to resolve their problems.

That included a disruption in water supplies to the village of Akishevo in western Russia, the lack of transport link to the village of Serebryanskoye in the southwestern Volgograd region, and in the Crimean village where the children complained about the leaking roof.

Although he has taken some questions from reporters at smaller events and foreign trips, Putin’s last big news conference was in 2021 as the U.S warned that Russia was about to move into Ukraine. He delayed an annual state-of-the-nation address until February 2023.

Since then, relations with the West have plunged to new lows amid the conflict in Ukraine.

He claimed Ukraine’s attempt to create a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River had fizzled and Kyiv suffered heavy losses, saying its government was sacrificing its troops in order to show some success to its Western sponsors as it seeks more aid, a tactic he called “stupid and irresponsible.”

The news conference also highlighted concerns some Russians have about another wave of mobilization.

“There is no need” for mobilization now, Putin said, because 1,500 men are recruited as volunteers every day. As of Wednesday, 486,000 soldiers have signed contracts with the military, he said.

His remarks about another mobilization were met with skepticism by some independent Russian media, which noted he had promised not to draft reservists for Ukraine and then reversed course and ordered a “partial” call-up. The move, which he announced in September 2022, prompted thousands of Russians to flee the country.

He reiterated that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine – “de-Nazification, de-militarization and a neutral status” of Ukraine – remain unchanged. He had spelled out those loosely defined objectives the day he sent in troops February 2022.

The claim of “de-Nazification” refers to Russia’s false assertions that Ukraine’s government is heavily influenced by radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups – an allegation derided by Kyiv and the West.

He reaffirmed his claim that much of today’s Ukraine, including the Black Sea port of Odesa and other coastal areas, historically belonged to Russia and were given away by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

While Moscow had accepted the new reality after the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Putin said he was forced to respond to what he described as an attempt by the West to turn Ukraine into a tool to challenge and threaten Russia.

“Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and what’s going on now is a huge tragedy, a civil war between brothers who have found themselves on the opposite sides,” he added.

Some journalists who lined up for the news conference in freezing temperatures for hours to enter the hall wore traditional dress, including elaborate hats, to catch his eye. Many held identifying placards.

Although the event is tightly controlled, some online questions that Putin ignored appeared on screens in the hall.

“Mr. President, when will the real Russia be the same as the one on TV?” one text message said, apparently referring to the Kremlin’s control over the media that portrays Putin positively and glosses over the country’s problems.

Another read: “I’d like to know, when will our president pay attention to his own country? We’ve got no education, no health care. The abyss lies ahead.”

Putin was asked by an artificial intelligence version of himself, speaking with his face and voice, on whether he uses body doubles – a subject of intense speculation by some Kremlin watchers. Putin brushed off the suggestion.

“Only one person should look like myself and talk in my voice — that person is going to be me,” he said, deadpanning: “By the way, this is my first double.”

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This story has been updated to correct that 244,000 is the number of troops called up to fight and are in Ukraine, not the total number there.

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Associated Press writers Emma Burrows in London and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

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