The War Must Go On, Until Putin Says Otherwise – Analysis


By Mike Eckel

(RFE/RL) — Four-plus hours filled with talk of eggs, natural gas, the European Union, abortions, Siberian railways, artificial intelligence, veterans’ benefits.

And the war in Ukraine.

“There will be peace when we achieve our goals,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said very early on in an end-of-the-year question-and-answer sessionon December 14. “Now let us return to these goals: they are unchanged. Let me remind you what we’re talking about: the ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine, its demilitarization, and its neutral status.”

In a lengthy performance, Putin painted a rosy picture of Russia, showcased his ability to jump from a slew of statistics to the minutiae of life in far-flung provinces — “egg prices are too high” — and repeated a litany of long-harbored grievances against the West.

But it’s the war in Ukraine — coming up on two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, and eight years since Moscow began secretly sending agents in to foment an insurgent conflict that erupted into war in the Donbas — that Russia watchers listened most closely for.

As winter sets in, Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive is nearing failure. Russia is digging in, conducting its own localized offensive operations, and stepping up its airborne pummeling of Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. Support for Kyiv from the West is flagging, with additional U.S. military aid stalled in Congress.

‘Ukraine…Remains At Full Existential Risk’

Against this backdrop, Putin seemed determined to signal that the war will continue as long as he believes it should, and that he is confident Russia will triumph. Not only over Ukraine, but over the West.

“Putin’s ambitions and appetites remain unchanged since day 1 (of this war and indeed his entire presidency),” said James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, a London think tank. “It is therefore very stupid to believe that he or Russia are interested in negotiation, no matter what some in the West may want or think. Putin will only negotiate the terms of Ukraine’s surrender.

“Ukraine, therefore, remains at full existential risk,” he said in an e-mail.

Putin last week confirmed what everyone expected: that he will run for a fifth term in a March presidential election he is certain to win barring a huge and unexpected development. So the Q&A was a campaign event of sorts — but there was much more talk of the war than there was about the election.

It served as a riposte to the efforts of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who flew to Washington this week to try and convince skeptical lawmakers – overwhelmingly Republican – that the U.S. government should continue to serve as the biggest backer of Ukraine’s arsenal for defense against Russia.

As Putin spoke, the question of continued U.S. support remained in doubt: Congress may stop working until next year without passing a package that includes over $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, most of it military.

So Putin was happy to do push the knife in a bit further, аsserting, for example, that an small but ambitious bridgehead that Ukraine has carved out on the east bank of the Dnieper River was doomed to failure.

“I think this is stupid and irresponsible on the part of the country’s political leadership. But that’s their business,” Putin said.

For his part, Zelenskiy tried some counterprogramming to blunt Putin’s message, speaking before the European Council at nearly the same time as Putin’s speech.

“Putin lost everything this year. It’s crucial that he has lost not just in Ukraine but in every aspect of European life. Europe maintained its unity. Europe didn’t let its people get dragged into any of the crises the Kremlin always dreams of,” he said in a speech.

As he frequently does, Putin engaged in historical airbrushing regarding the events that led first to the Donbas conflict in 2014, and then all-out invasion in 2022. In 2013, Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych, under economic pressure from Moscow, spurned an offer of greater integration with the European Union. That set off months of street protests that culminated in violent clashes in Kyiv in February 2014 and Yanukovych fleeing to Russia — events that Putin once again falsely labeled a U.S.-backed coup d’etat.

Weeks later, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region, then started an insurgency in the Donbas.

Revisionist Rhetoric

Putin’s rhetoric repeats a narrative that much of the Russian populace has bought into, believing in the war’s righteousness, as the Kremlin tries to portray it.

His assertion that Russia’s invasion is aimed at “de-Nazifying” Ukraine is one of several justifications for the incursion that is based on historical revisionism or outright falsehoods. His insistence that the country is run by Nazis is belied in multiple ways, including by the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself is Jewish and his great-grandparents were killed by the Nazis.

Putin also avoided mention of what for Russians is the most problematic aspect of the war: the enormous casualties that Russia has suffered since February 2022. By Western estimates, the number of Russian soldiers killed or wounded exceeds 315,000 — a toll far greater than that suffered by the Soviet Union in 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

It’s a casualty toll that many Western experts say will force Putin and Russian commanders to seek another round of mobilization, to bolster troop strength and go on a more decisive offensive.

Last year’s call-up, however, was deeply unpopular, jolting Russian society and leading to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of working age men and women. The optics of announcing one before the March election, would be highly problematic, and Putin suggested he wouldn’t do it. 

“We have already recruited 486,000 contract soldiers,” he said.

“And the flow of men who are ready to defend their homeland with arms in hand is not stopping: 1,500 people a day. That’s half a million people; why do we need mobilization?” he said. “As of today, there is no need for mobilization.”

“Today” is the operative word.

  • Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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