Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no regrets on Thursday for his war in Ukraine, insisting that the “special military operation” was still achieving its goals and the West’s dominance over world affairs was coming to an end.
Inveighing against the West for more than three-and-a-half hours in a question-and-answer session at an annual foreign policy conference in Moscow, Putin appeared confident and relaxed, a marked contrast from stiff, formal and uneasy public appearances early in the war.
Asked if there had been any disappointments in the past year, Putin answered simply: “No”, though he also said he always thinks about Russians lost in Ukraine.
The speech contained a familiar litany of grievances against “our Western opponents”, who he said faced the inevitable crumbling of their “hegemony”. Liberal Western leaders had undermined “traditional values” around the world, foisting a culture with “dozens of genders, gay parades” on other countries.
Putin accused the West of inciting the war in Ukraine and of playing a “dangerous, bloody and dirty” game that was sowing chaos across the world.
“The historical period of the West’s undivided dominance over world affairs is coming to an end,” the 70-year-old former KGB spy said. “We are standing at a historical frontier: Ahead is probably the most dangerous, unpredictable and, at the same time, important decade since the end of World War Two.”
The conflict, which began eight months ago with an invasion by Russian forces of neighbouring Ukraine, has killed thousands, displaced millions, shaken the global economy and reopened Cold War-era divisions.
No mention of setback
Later, when drawn more directly into discussion of the war, Putin made no mention of Russia’s battlefield setbacks of recent months, or of steps he has ordered in response, such as calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists, which has led to thousands of men fleeing abroad.
When the event’s host referred obliquely to public concern about whether the operation was still “going according to plan” as Russian officials have maintained since the outset, Putin said its aims had not changed.
Russia was fighting to protect the people of the Donbas, he said, referring to an eastern industrial region that comprises two of the four Ukrainian provinces he proclaimed annexed last month. Economic sanctions had already had their worst impact and would ultimately make Russia stronger by making its industry more independent, he said.
Fighting has been going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014 between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists.
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In his speech, Putin played down a nuclear standoff with the West, insisting Russia had not threatened to use nuclear weapons and had only responded to nuclear “blackmail” from Western leaders. He and other Russian officials have repeatedly said in recent weeks that Russia could use nuclear weapons to protect its territorial integrity, remarks interpreted in the West as implicit threats to use them to defend parts of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed. Scores of countries have condemned the move as illegal.
He also repeated Russia’s latest allegation – that Ukraine was planning to use a so-called “dirty bomb” to spread nuclear material, which the United States, Britain and France have called “transparently false”. Putin said the Ukrainians would carry out such an attack to blame Russia.
A suggestion by Kyiv that the Russian charge might mean Moscow plans to detonate a “dirty bomb” itself was false, he said.
“We don’t need to do that. There would be no sense whatsoever in doing that,” Putin said.
Both Russia and NATO are carrying out annual drills of their nuclear forces this week, and Russia has given the exercises an unusually high profile, showing off missiles, submarines and strategic bombers on state TV.
Putin’s speech was dismissed in Kyiv: “Any Putin‘s speech can be described as ‘for Freud'” tweeted Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Pololyak.
“The one who invaded foreign country, annexed its land and committed genocide accuses others of international law/ sovereignty of other countries violation?”
Putin’s remarks were not very new and did not indicate a change in his strategic goals, including in Ukraine, the White House said.
Fighting on the ground appears to have slowed in recent days, with Ukrainian officials saying tough terrain and bad weather had held up their main advance in southern Kherson province.
Russia has ordered the evacuation of civilians from a pocket it holds on the west bank of the mouth of the Dnipro River that bisects Ukraine, but Kyiv says Russia is reinforcing the area with freshly called-up reservists.
Russian forces shelled Ukrainian positions along the entire length of the line of contact and built fortifications, particularly on the east bank of the Dnipro River, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a Facebook post on Thursday evening.
Russian forces targeted more than 15 localities along the front line, the post said.
Russian forces were enduring shortages of material and equipment, including warm winter clothing, and this had prompted a rise in theft and looting in Russian-occupied areas, it said.
Russian forces persisted in attempts to advance on the two theatres of heaviest fighting in eastern Donetsk region – Bakhmut and Avdiivka, the Ukrainian military said.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
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