Putin says no peace before achieving Russia’s goals in Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that there will be no peace in Ukraine until the Kremlin achieves its goals, which have not changed after nearly two years of fighting that has heightened tensions between Moscow and the West.

Speaking at a year-end news conference that lasted more than four hours and provided him with an opportunity to consolidate his grip on power, Putin provided some rare details about what Moscow calls its “special military operation.”

He rejected the need for a second wave of mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine – a deeply unpopular move. He said that there are about 617,000 Russian soldiers there, including about 244,000 soldiers who have been called to fight alongside professional military forces.

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

Putin highlighted Russian military gains in Ukraine as the second winter of the conflict approaches.

He added: “Almost along the line of contact, our armed forces are, to put it modestly, improving their positions, almost all of them are in an active phase of work, and there is an improvement in the position of our forces all the time.”

“The enemy has announced a major counterattack, but has not achieved anything anywhere,” Putin added, claiming that the latest Ukrainian attempt to establish a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River also failed and Ukrainian forces suffered heavy losses.

He claimed that Kiev was sacrificing its forces in order to show its Western sponsors some success while seeking more aid.

“I think this is stupid and irresponsible on behalf of the country’s political leadership, but that’s their business,” he said.

Putin, who has been in power for nearly 24 years, made the announcement last week Running for re-electionHe was met with applause upon his arrival at the hall in central Moscow. He did not hold his traditional press conference last year after his army failed to seize Kiev and as the Ukrainian army regained lost territory.

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 reporters again — even though the session was more choreographed and more spectacle than scrutiny.

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This was the first time that Putin took questions from Western journalists since the fighting began in Ukraine. Ordinary citizens were able to submit questions alongside journalists’ questions, and Russian media said at least two million questions had been sent in advance.

The press conference began with questions about Ukraine and highlighted some Russians’ concerns about another wave of mobilization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, December 14, 2023. (Alexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Complex Image via AP)

“There is no need” for mobilization now, Putin said, because 1,500 men are being recruited 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.

Putin also called on Ukraine to remain neutral and refrain from joining NATO.

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, 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.

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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.”

Putin’s last press conference was in 2021 where the United States warned that Russia was about to send troops into Ukraine. He has delayed his annual State of the Nation address Until February 2023.

Relations with the United States have since fallen to new lows as the conflict continues. Russia arrested Moscow-based American journalist Ivan Gershkovich in March.

Shortly before Putin spoke, a Russian court ruled that Gershkovitch, 32, He should remain behind bars Until at least January 30.

US citizen Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive also from Michigan He was imprisoned in Russia Since his arrest in 2018 on espionage-related charges.

Russia recently He declined the offer To repatriate Gershkovitch and Whelan, both of whom the US government has designated as unjustly detained.

“We do not refuse to return them,” Putin said on Thursday, adding that he wanted to reach an agreement but “it is not easy.” He refused to go into details, but said that Washington “must listen to us” and make an offer that satisfies Russia.

Regarding the war between Israel and Hamas, Putin once again expressed his regret over the killing of thousands of women and children in Gaza, citing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who described it as a “cemetery for children.”

Putin urged stronger efforts to protect civilians and 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. He reiterated the call to implement the United Nations resolution regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Putin appeared calm and relaxed during the questions, although he complained a lot, blaming the air conditioner. The event is primarily aimed at the domestic audience and represents an opportunity for them to appear personally involved in solving the problems of ordinary Russians and consolidate their authority before the March 17 elections.

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In response to a final question about what kind of warning he would have given 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.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, December 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, December 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

He also answered questions from children in Russian-annexed Crimea about the leaky roof and mold in their gym, and called out a woman who called out “my favorite president” to complain about high egg prices. Putin apologized and blamed “a defect in the government’s work” for not increasing imports quickly enough.

Journalists lined up in freezing temperatures to enter the hall hours before Putin’s arrival. Some wore traditional dress, including elaborate hats to attract attention or 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.”

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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.

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

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