Putin Suggests He Has a Winning Hand in His War in Ukraine

President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday cast himself as a wartime leader in full control of his invasion and his nation, his confidence on display in a stage-managed, four-hour news conference that underscored the Russian leader’s apparent determination to outlast Ukraine and the West.

Mr. Putin said his vaguely defined goals of the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine — the same unfounded justifications that he used to launch the invasion nearly two years ago — had not changed. He reiterated that he was open to peace talks, but offered no hint of a willingness to compromise. And he boasted that Ukraine’s Western backing was running dry, a sign of how the impasse in Washington over more funding for Kyiv had buoyed the mood in the Kremlin.

“Peace will come when we achieve our goals,” Mr. Putin said. Referring to Western military aid to Ukraine, he added: “They’re getting everything as freebies. But these freebies can run out at some point, and it looks like they’re already starting to run out.”

For the first time, Mr. Putin commented on Russia’s arrest last March of Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who remains in pretrial detention in Moscow on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government have vehemently denied. Analysts have said that Mr. Gershkovich’s best hope of being released is through a prisoner exchange with the United States or another Western country.

“We want to make a deal, but it should be mutually acceptable to both sides,” Mr. Putin said at the news conference, referring to Mr. Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a former Marine and corporate executive. Mr. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges that the United States has called politically motivated.

The Russian leader’s appearance came just hours after a Moscow court upheld the detention of Mr. Gershkovich with a ruling that will leave the journalist — who has been held for 260 days — in custody until at least the end of January. The State Department said last week that Russia had rejected a “substantial offer” that would have freed him and Mr. Whelan

“It’s not that we’re refusing to return them; we didn’t refuse,” the Russian leader said, adding, “There is contact and dialogue with our American partners on this.”

Mr. Putin spoke on Thursday from a position of relative strength. Russian forces fended off Ukraine’s counteroffensive this year and are now attacking in several areas along the front line. Military production in Russia is ramping up, and Western sanctions have failed to cripple the economy.

At the same time, Ukraine faces some of the steepest challenges of the war, deadlocked on the battlefield and urgently seeking to shore up Western support. Just this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky came away from Washington empty-handed as he sought to persuade Congress to pass a substantive aid package.

Ukraine did receive a glimmer of good news on Thursday when the European Union agreed to officially open talks for Kyiv to join the bloc. Accession could take years, but any attempt by Ukraine to move closer to the West has always irritated Mr. Putin, including a potential trade deal that Russia pressured Kyiv to abandon in 2013.

Mr. Putin spoke at a nationally televised event near the Kremlin that featured two staples of the two-plus decades of his rule: his year-end news conference, at which hundreds of journalists try to get the president’s attention by hollering and holding up signs; and his annual call-in show, in which thousands of regular Russians write in, many of them trying to get him to intervene to solve local problems.

Last year, Mr. Putin held neither event, a sign that he had little good news to report after the disastrous beginning of his invasion of Ukraine. This year, the Kremlin for the first time combined the two so that Thursday’s spectacle became a head-spinning telecast that alternated between questions from journalists in the hall and carefully selected notes and videos sent in by the public.

Throughout the event, Mr. Putin sought to appear confident and in command. Next spring’s rubber-stamp presidential election, which is expected to grant him another six-year term, went largely unmentioned, suggesting that the president saw no need for even perfunctory campaigning. One journalist from the Russian Far East expressed support for Mr. Putin’s candidacy, telling the Russian leader that “you’re in power as long as I can remember myself.”

Queried about problems, Mr. Putin largely brushed them off, even when it came to the skyrocketing price of eggs. He responded to a question about it with a deadpan, off-color joke before apologizing for his government’s inability to come to grips with the problem. And when a military correspondent asked about the shortage of drones on the front line, Mr. Putin shot back, “You can’t not see that it’s getting better.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote: “Putin isn’t interested in currying favor or buttering people up. He believes that the people are with him, and therefore he allows himself to behave very reservedly.”

The event’s stagecraft highlighted the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin still describes as “the special military operation.” The first 90 minutes featured a wounded soldier, two military bloggers and three video questions from Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. Unlike the war’s early months, when Russian officials sought to hide its reality from the public, the Kremlin now evidently sees it as a winning message.

But Mr. Putin also tried to assure Russians that the invasion would not bring new upheaval into their lives. He said he saw no need for another military draft because, he claimed, some 500,000 people had signed up for military service voluntarily.

“Why do we need mobilization?” Mr. Putin said. “Today, there’s no need for it.”

The program, carefully curated to convey a veneer of openness, took place in Moscow’s Gostiny Dvor, a vast former market hall one block from Red Square. It was decked out with large video screens on which questions from across Russia and occupied Ukrainian territory were displayed for 20 or so seconds at a time. Most of them went unanswered.

As time ticked on, people in the audience began yelling out the names of their cities — “Omsk!” “Ufa!” — and their news outlets in the hope of posing their questions. In the background, a constant ticker of videos and questions — reminiscent of the blue background with white font of “Jeopardy!” — were broadcast on four screens on the wall.

At one point, Mr. Putin gave the floor to two young men from Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukrainian territories that Russia illegally annexed last year. Their comments highlighted the propagandistic nature of the event.

“We came without questions; we have nothing to complain about,” said the questioner from Luhansk. “We came to say thank you to you for making us part of Russia.”

But throughout the discussion, many questions from the occupied territories were displayed on the large screens.

“In Mariupol after liberation many of the old elevators in high buildings have been shut off. When will there be new ones? I live on the eighth floor and I’m 80 years old,” one person wrote in.

Many questions focused on basic quality-of-life issues, topics that ordinary Russians were coping with on a daily basis: inflation, a lack of infrastructure and rising energy prices in cities where temperatures reach minus 22 Fahrenheit.

The session represents an opportunity for regular Russians to take their hyperlocal issues to the president. Many people perceive the local and regional authorities as corrupt, but believe in the president.

That was certainly how Mr. Putin behaved, rather than as someone seeking support for re-election. He did not make many campaign promises and was very confident in his responses, blaming people’s problems on local and regional governments, calling them “technical issues.”

Mr. Putin has held power in Russia, either as president or prime minister, since 1999. If he wins as expected in March and serves the term to completion, he would become the longest-serving Russian leader since Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

Mr. Putin did not address the vast inequality in Russia, but the questions scrolling behind him were a reminder that there were some people who expected more.

In the ticker of questions was this one: “Why is your reality so divergent from our existence?” Another questioner, using Mr. Putin’s patronymic as a sign of respect, wrote: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, please tell us, when are we going to live better?”

Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Berlin, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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