MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday there would be no peace in Ukraine until the Kremlin realizes its goals, which remain unchanged after nearly two years of fighting that has sent tensions soaring between Moscow and the West.
Speaking at a year-end news conference that offered him an opportunity to reinforce his grip on power, Putin gave some rare details on what Moscow calls its “special military operation.”
He dismissed the need for a second wave of mobilisation of reservists to fight in Ukraine — a move that has been deeply unpopular. He said there are some 617,000 Russian soldiers there, including around 244,000 troops who were called up to fight alongside professional military 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 press conference last year after his military failed to take Kyiv and as the Ukrainian army retook territory in the east and south of the country.
But with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky now forced to plead for more US aid, a stalling counteroffensive and reports of fracturing Western support for Kyiv, he decided to face the media once more — although the session is heavily choreographed and is more about spectacle than scrutiny.
This year, ordinary citizens had the chance to phone in questions along with those from journalists, and Russian state media said at least 2 million questions for Putin had been submitted ahead of time.
It is the first time Putin, who has heavily limited his interaction with foreign media, faced questions from Western journalists since the fighting in Ukraine began.
The news conference opened with questions about Ukraine and highlighted concerns some Russians have about another wave of mobilisation.
“There is no need” for mobilisation now, Putin said, because 1,500 men are being recruited into the army every day. As of Wednesday evening, 486,000 soldiers have signed a contract with the Russian military, he said.
Putin’s remarks about another wave of mobilisation were met with scepticism by some independent Russian media, which pointed out that 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 leave the country.
He reiterated that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine — “de-Nazification, de-militarisation and a neutral status” of Ukraine — remain unchanged. He had spelled out those loosely defined objectives the day he sent troops into its neighbour in February 2022.
The claim of “de-Nazification” refers to Russia’s allegations that Ukraine’s government is heavily influenced by radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups — an allegation derided by Kyiv and the West.
Putin has also demanded that Ukraine remain neutral and refrain from joining Nato.
Putin’s last news conference was in 2021 amid US warnings that Russia was on the brink of sending troops into Ukraine. He delayed his annual state-of-the-nation address until February of this year.
Relations since then between Russia and the US have plunged to new lows as the conflict has continued and after Moscow detained US journalist Evan Gershkovich while on a reporting trip to Russia in March.
Shortly before Putin spoke, a Russian court ruled that Gershkovich, 32, must stay behind bars until at least January 30.
US citizen Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, also has been jailed in Russia since his 2018 arrest on espionage-related charges.
Russia recently rejected an offer to bring home Gershkovich and Whelan, who both have been declared wrongfully detained by the US government.
“We’re not refusing to return them,” Putin said on Thursday, adding that he wanted to reach an agreement but “it’s not easy.”
He refused to go into details of any exchange but said Washington “must hear us” and make an offer that satisfies Russia.
Putin appeared calm and relaxed during the news conference, although he frequently cleared his throat — blaming the air conditioning. His appearance is primarily aimed at a domestic audience and is a chance for him to appear personally involved in resolving the problems of ordinary Russians and reinforce his authority ahead of the March 17 election.
During a question about the cost of toll roads, Putin took notes and gave the impression he was doing sums in a notebook.
He also fielded questions from a group of children in Russian-annexed Crimea about the leaking roof and mold in their sports hall and a woman who addressed “my favorite president” to complain about the soaring price of eggs.
“I regret and apologize about that. A glitch in the work of the government,” Putin replied, explaining that egg production has not matched demand and blaming the government for not increasing imports quickly enough.