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Putin aims for show of power and reassurance as war in Ukraine appears at stalemate

Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to manage any brewing discontent ahead of next March’s presidential election and used his year-end news conference Thursday to try to show he is best to steer the country and its war in Ukraine, experts say.

Kremlin hopes U.S. military aid for Ukraine could be drying up

A person holds up a hand as they look ahead.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin answered questions for more than four hours during a marathon session broadcast live Thursday on all major television channels in the country, he was in the type of environment he relishes.

He was front and centre during the year-end news conference and speaking at length in a carefully curated event designed to make him look powerful and in control.

According to the event organizers, 2.5 million questions were submitted ahead of time, and while a few of those were posed to Putin, most of those he fielded during the news conference came from Russian journalists who were selected in the audience.

Putin, who announced on Friday that he plans to run again for president, will almost certainly win a fifth term next March, given that most of his opponents have been imprisoned or are living in exile.

While elections in Russia aren't considered free or fair, experts say Putin is keen to manage any brewing discontent and used Thursday's question-and-answer broadcast to try to show he is best to steer the country and its war in Ukraine.

"It's sort of an equivalent of a state of the union address," said Maxim Alyukov, a research associate at King's College London and a fellow with the school of Russian and European studies at the University of Manchester. "It's important to keep the semblance of normality … to reassure some people that everything is going according to plan."

A person sits opposite another person at a large table with an audience in the background.

Last year, at a time of mounting military losses, the annual news conference was cancelled.

In the months prior to that cancellation, hundreds of thousands of Russian men were mobilized to support the country's military operation in Ukraine.

In November 2022, Ukraine recaptured the city of Kherson, which Russia had claimed and celebrated as its own.

Ukraine launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive in June. But the sprawling front line, which spans more than 1,000 kilometres across the south and east of the country, has remained largely unchanged. Last month, Ukraine's top general, Valery Zaluzhny, said the war is at a stalemate.

What next for U.S. aid to Ukraine?

This year, Putin's messaging seized upon the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which has yielded very few gains, and the country's biggest financial backer, the United States, where politicians are waffling on whether to commit tens of billions of dollars more in military aid.

U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday that it would be a "Christmas gift" to Putin if Congress doesn't approve a $61.4-billion package, which hasn't been passed because of a lack of Republican support.

Republican lawmakers say that any more money for Ukraine must be passed alongside changes to domestic immigration policy — a contentious issue in the U.S.

During Thursday's news conference, Putin highlighted how much Ukraine relies on the aid, and the fact that it is eroding.

WATCH: Putin speaks at heavily controlled news conference:

Putin answers hand-picked questions at 4-hour news conference

6 hours ago

Duration 2:19

Russian President Vladimir Putin spent four hours answering hand-picked questions — submitted ahead of time — at a live year-end news conference. The questions ranged from the economy to Ukraine, but not about when the hundreds of thousands of Russian men sent to Ukraine can return home.

Ukraine "produces almost nothing … everything is brought in for free," Putin said.

"This dependence on freebies may come to an end at some point, and by the looks of it, that end is approaching gradually."

Falling commitments

The Germany-based Kiel Institute, which tracks aid to Ukraine, found that between August and October of this year, there was an almost 90 per cent drop in commitments compared to the same period in 2022.

"When [the Kremlin] sees some signs of fracture and support for Ukraine in the West, for [the Kremlin], this a sign of hope," said Alyukov.

"They have been spinning this narrative to sort of convince people that we have even more chances to be successful in freedom."

People walk beside a car that has been destroyed and a building that has been damaged.

Alyukov, who researches political communication and propaganda in Russia, said even if there isn't widespread opposition to the war in Russia, the public is weary and wants to see an end to it.

While Western sanctions haven't crippled the country's economy, Russians are experiencing rising food prices and Alyukov said many people know at least someone who has been injured or killed in the war.

Among the two million questions that organizers said were submitted ahead of time were some from women whose husbands and sons have been mobilized.

WATCH | Critic says Putin has shown he's committed to war against Ukraine:

Putin critic explains why he thinks the Russian leader won't relent on Ukraine

15 hours ago

Duration 0:49

Bill Browder, an author, businessman and prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, says the Russian president has 'been very transparent' and shown he's ready to keep up his war against Ukraine, even as the cost of war mounts.

Demands to bring loved ones home

In recent weeks, the women have made pleas on the Telegram channel The Way Home demanding that their loved ones are returned.

CBC News spoke to Victoria, a 31-year-old woman whose husband was mobilized last fall and was sent to Ukraine in August, leaving her to raise their young son by herself.

We have agreed not to disclose her last name because she fears she could face retribution for speaking out.

She submitted a question ahead of time, asking Putin when the war would end and the mobilized troops returned home.

Her question wasn't selected on Thursday and Putin didn't address the fate of those forcibly sent to Ukraine, but did say that another round of mobilization wasn't necessary.

A person speaking while seated at a table is seen through a screen on a television camera.

After the conference wrapped up, she told CBC News she was disappointed in what was said.

"He mentioned the losses of the Ukrainian armed forces and talked about the West, but not a word about ours and what it was like for our soldiers," Victoria wrote in a message to CBC.

Putin said that more than 600,000 Russians are fighting in Ukraine and that Russia would continue with its plan in Ukraine until it accomplished its goals or until Ukraine agreed to "demilitarization" and stopped pursuing its goal of becoming a member of NATO.

No talk of victory

Putin "would simply be happy if [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said yes now and … agreed on a truce," said Ilya Shablinksy, a Russian law professor who left the country after the start of the full-scale invasion and is now based in Riga, Latvia.

Shablinksy told CBC News that it is telling that Putin didn't talk about victory or winning on Thursday, but about simply about Russia achieving its goals.

A person seated on a couch looks forward.

U.S. and British officials estimate that more than 300,000 Russian fighters have been killed or injured since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, but Putin made no mention Thursday of mounting casualties.

In fact, a great deal of the broadcast was focused on domestic issues like the price of chicken.

Putin was given questions about whether he enjoyed playing chess or what he dreamed of as a child.

At one point, an image generated by artificial intelligence of Putin appeared and asked the president about whether he had body doubles, a deliberate attempt to ridicule speculation that sometimes emerges after Putin makes public appearances.

"The main goal of this event was to inspire confidence," Shablinsky said.

"Not to give useful new, interesting information."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart

Foreign correspondent

Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. During her nearly two decades with CBC, she has reported across Canada and internationally. She can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on X @briarstewart

    With files from Corinne Seminoff

    *****
    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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