Putin Tells Annual News Conference Russia’s Aims in Ukraine Haven’t Changed

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is more than three hours into his year-end news conference on Thursday, and has stated clearly that his goals in Ukraine have not changed — the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of the country. He reiterated that he was open to peace talks, but offered no hint of a willingness to compromise.

Mr. Putin was resuming an annual tradition at a critical moment for the war his forces are waging in Ukraine. Continued support from the United States, Ukraine’s most important backer, has increasingly come into doubt as Republicans in Congress block a White House request for a new aid package.

The marathon December news conference offers reporters a rare — albeit stage-managed — chance to pose potentially tricky questions. Asked about two Americans detained in Russia, including Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Putin claimed they broke Russian law but added that “we want to make a deal” with the United States for their release.

Here’s what you need to know about the event and the topics Mr. Putin is addressing.

Mr. Putin is nearing the third year of his invasion of Ukraine in a position of relative strength, and his responses on Thursday underscored that point.

Russian forces fended off Ukraine’s counteroffensive this year and are now attacking in several areas along the front line, and military production in Russia is ramping up. The deadlock over military aid for Ukraine in the U.S. Congress has also made Mr. Putin’s long-term bet that his country will outlast adversaries appear more realistic.

  • Asked by one of the news conference’s moderators when the war will end, Mr. Putin said: “If they don’t want to talk, then we are forced to take other measures, including military ones.” He added that he saw no need for 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.”

  • Mr. Putin also made clear that he thinks Western support for Ukraine is drying up. “They’re getting everything as freebies,” Mr. Putin told the news conference, referring to Western arms deliveries to Ukraine. “But these freebies can run out at some point, and it looks like they’re already starting to run out.”

Mr. Putin said the Russian government was engaged in a “difficult” dialogue with the U.S. authorities over the possible release of two Americans detained in Russia — Mr. Gershkovich and Paul Whelan.

Mr. Gershkovich was arrested last March on an espionage charge that he, his newspaper and the U.S. government have vehemently denied. Mr. Whelan, a former Marine and corporate executive, is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that the United States has also called politically motivated.

“We want to make a deal, but it should be mutually acceptable to both sides,” Mr. Putin told the news conference in his first remarks about Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest. He spoke 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.

Mr. Putin has made the resilience of his country’s wartime economy a major talking point in recent public speeches. Despite a flurry of international sanctions, the Russian economy has regained its prewar size and is expected to grow by about 3 percent this year, as a significant increase in military spending stimulates production, while labor shortages force wages to rise.

But record state spending has come at a cost: Inflation has climbed sharply since the spring, and Mr. Putin acknowledged on Thursday that it could reach 8 percent this year. High interest rates are stifling private investment, companies are struggling to find workers and the economy is becoming more dependent on volatile oil revenues.

In a question that underscored public anxiety about inflation, one person asked the Russian leader what he planned to do about the rapidly rising prices of eggs. Mr. Putin responded with an off-color joke, an apparent attempt to project confidence and ease.

The news conference provided Mr. Putin with foils for one of his favorite themes: presenting his foreign adversaries as hypocritical and decadent.

  • The outbreak of the war with Hamas has diverted international attention from Ukraine. Amid mounting calls for a cease-fire in Gaza as the death toll from Israel’s bombardment of the enclave climbs, Mr. Putin sought to differentiate between the actions of the Russian and Israeli militaries. It’s a claim he has been leveraging to try to discredit the West and to gain sympathy around the world.

    “Look at the special military operation” — his term for the war in Ukraine — “and look at what’s happening in Gaza, and feel the difference,” Mr. Putin said, when asked about Gaza by a Turkish journalist. “Nothing of the sort is happening in Ukraine.” (In fact, Russia’s invasion has caused massive civilian casualties, including thousands in the city of Mariupol.)

  • Mr. Putin also sought to counter Western efforts to turn Russia into a global pariah over the war in Ukraine, presenting himself as a champion of socially conservative causes that resonate with many citizens in other parts of the world.

    “In many cities in Europe and the U.S., not to mention other world regions, a lot of people think that we are doing everything right,” he said, citing Russia’s “defense of our traditional values.”

    He also praised Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, the European Union’s most Putin-friendly leader, and predicted that relations with the United States could someday improve. “As for the United States, we are ready to build relations with them. We believe that the world needs the U.S.,” Mr. Putin said.

With Russia’s political system under his firm control, Mr. Putin is widely expected to win another six-year term as president in the election in March. In the absence of a genuine competition among candidates, the vote will most likely turn into a referendum about Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, and he will probably use the result to add a veneer of legitimacy to the war and to trumpet Russians’ approval of his actions.

If he were re-elected and served out another term, by 2030 Mr. Putin would become the longest-serving Russian leader since the Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century, surpassing all the Soviet rulers, including Stalin.

There were about 600 journalists, including about a dozen Western correspondents, on hand in Gostiny Dvor, a large event space just one block away from Moscow’s Red Square. Mr. Putin was also taking called-in questions from people across Russia.

In years past, Russians called into Mr. Putin to ask about their pensions or local infrastructure problems. This year, the first 90 minutes of the event featured a wounded soldier, two military bloggers and three video questions from occupied Ukraine, underscoring the Kremlin’s desire to put the war in Ukraine front and center for the general public.

Ivan Nechepurenko and Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting.

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