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 also 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.
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.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller responded by saying that Putin “still wishes to conquer Ukraine” but the belief that Russia would outlast the West or the United States was wrong.