MOSCOW (AP) — Emboldened by battlefield gains and weak Western support for Ukraine, a relaxed and confident President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that there will be no peace until Russia achieves its goals, which he says have not changed after nearly two years of fighting.
It was Putin’s first formal press conference that Western media were allowed to attend since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022. The tightly choreographed session, which lasted more than four hours and included questions from ordinary Russians about things like egg prices and leaks. The gym decks were more about spectacle than scrutiny.
But while Putin used the offer as an opportunity to consolidate his power ahead of elections in March that he is certain to win, Putin also provided some rare details about what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
He said the steady flow of volunteers meant there was no need for a second wave of mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine – a move that was deeply unpopular. He added that there are about 617,000 Russian soldiers there, including about 244,000 soldiers who were mobilized a year ago to fight alongside professional forces.
“There will be peace when we achieve our goals,” Putin said, repeating a frequent Kremlin phrase. “Victory will be ours.”
Putin, who has been in power for nearly 24 years, made the announcement last week Run for re-electionHe was met with applause upon his arrival at the hall in central Moscow. He did not hold his traditional news conference last year amid setbacks in Ukraine.
But with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Demanding more American aid In the middle of procrastination counterattack And And Western support was broken He decided to face the journalists again – even though only two Western journalists were called in to ask questions.
Putin highlighted Russia’s successes in Ukraine and the weak support from Kiev’s allies.
He added: “Ukraine today produces almost nothing. They are trying to preserve something, but they practically do not produce anything themselves and bring everything for free.” “But the freebies may end at some point, and it looks like they will end little by little.”
Putin noted “an improvement in the situation of our forces along” the front line.
He added: “The enemy announced a major counterattack, but did not achieve anything anywhere.”
The session mostly dealt with Ukraine and domestic issues, but some international topics were addressed:
Putin said he wanted to reach an agreement with Washington to release them American journalist Evan Gershkovitch And American businessman Paul Whelan, Both are being held in Russia on espionage-related charges. “We do not refuse to return them,” Putin said, but added that reaching an agreement that satisfies Moscow “is not easy.”
He expressed his regret for the killing of thousands of civilians in central Gaza The Israeli-Hamas warQuoting United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who described it as a “cemetery for children.” He urged greater humanitarian aid, adding that Russia had proposed establishing a field hospital in Gaza near the border with Egypt, but Israel responded that that would be unsafe.
When asked what he would have told himself from today’s perspective when he began his first term in 2000, Putin said he would have warned against “naivety and overconfidence regarding our so-called partners” in the West.
The 71-year-old leader appeared calm and relaxed during questions, although he often grumbled, blaming the air conditioning.
Ordinary citizens submitted questions alongside those of journalists, and Russian media said at least two million questions were sent in advance, giving him a chance to appear personally involved in solving their problems. This is especially vital for Putin ahead of the March 17 elections.
Irina Akopova from the southern Krasnodar region, who addressed Putin and described him as “my favorite president,” complained about the high prices of eggs. He apologized to her and blamed “a defect in the government’s work” for not increasing imports quickly enough.
Children in Russian-annexed Crimea asked him about the leaky and moldy roof in their gym.
Immediately after the parade, Russia’s main criminal investigation agency announced that it had begun investigations into alleged irregularities committed by local authorities in areas whose residents had asked Putin to solve their problems.
This included the interruption of water supplies to the village of Akishevo in western Russia, the lack of a transport link to the village of Serebrianskoye in the southwestern Volgograd region, and in the Crimean village where children complained of a leaking roof.
Although he has taken some questions from journalists at small events and foreign trips, Putin’s last major press conference was in 2021 in which the United States warned that Russia was about to move into Ukraine. He has delayed his annual State of the Nation address Until February 2023.
Since then, relations with the West have sunk to new lows amid the conflict in Ukraine.
He claimed that Ukraine’s attempt to establish a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River had failed and that Kiev had suffered heavy casualties, saying its government was sacrificing its forces in order to show its Western sponsors some success while seeking more aid, a tactic he said. He described it as “stupid and irresponsible.”
The press conference also highlighted some Russians’ concerns about another wave of mobilization.
“There is no need” for mobilization now, Putin said, because 1,500 men are being recruited as volunteers every day. He added that as of Wednesday, 486,000 soldiers had signed contracts with the army.
His statements about further mobilization were met with skepticism by some independent Russian media, which noted that he promised not to recruit reservists for Ukraine, but then reversed course and ordered reserve forces to be sent to Ukraine. Call “partial”. This move, announced in September 2022, prompted thousands of Russians to flee the country.
He reiterated that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine – “denazification, disarmament and neutral status” for Ukraine – have not changed. He made those loosely defined goals clear on the day he sent in troops in February 2022.
The “denazification” claim refers to Russia’s false assertions that the Ukrainian government is heavily influenced by ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups – a claim that has been ridiculed by Kiev and the West.
He reiterated his claim that much of today’s Ukraine, including the Black Sea port of Odessa and other coastal areas, had historically belonged to Russia and had been ceded by Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin.
While Moscow accepted the new reality after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin said he was forced to respond to what he described as the West’s attempt to turn Ukraine into a tool to challenge and threaten Russia.
He added: “The Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and what is happening now is a great tragedy, a civil war between brothers who found themselves on opposite sides.”
Some of the journalists who lined up for the news conference in freezing temperatures for hours to enter the hall wore traditional clothing, including elaborate hats, to attract his attention. Many of them carried identification signs.
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 shown on TV?,” one text message said, in an apparent reference to the Kremlin’s control of media outlets that portray Putin in a positive light and cover up the country’s problems.
Another read: “I would like to know when will our president take care of his country? We have no education and no health care. The abyss awaits us.”
Putin was asked by an AI version of himself, speaking with his face and voice, about whether he uses body doubles – a topic Intense speculation By some Kremlin observers. Putin rejected this proposal.
“Only one person should look like me and speak with my voice – that person will be me,” he said in a deadpan voice. “By the way, that is my first husband.”
This story has been updated to correct that 244,000 is the number of troops called into combat who are in Ukraine, not the total number there.
Associated Press writers Emma Burrows in London and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.
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