Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Putin Remains Defiant, Threatens Ukraine in Annual Presser

Russia’s year-end telethon ends with the usual bombast about Ukraine, NATO, and Father Frost.

By , a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manege exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manege exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manege exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference is normally a marathon political spectacle where Russians, official or otherwise, petition for new roads, new schools, or a personal visit by the president to some far-flung town where they swear they are his number-one fans.

Not this year. After months of rising tensions with the West over Ukraine, Putin and his top officials have begun to openly warn of a military response. So when the man who has stood at Russia’s helm for more than two decades stepped into Moscow’s Manege exhibition hall shortly after noon on Thursday, a single overriding question hung in the air: Are we heading for war?

For months, Russian troops, now numbering some 120,000, have massed near the borders with Ukraine in a state of battlefield readiness that military analysts say gives Moscow the capability to launch an offensive with little prior warning. Fueling its readiness to act are deep-rooted Russian grievances over the eastward expansion of NATO and the weapons supplied by the alliance to Ukraine, which Putin sees as historically Russian but which is slipping rapidly out of his grasp.

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference is normally a marathon political spectacle where Russians, official or otherwise, petition for new roads, new schools, or a personal visit by the president to some far-flung town where they swear they are his number-one fans.

Not this year. After months of rising tensions with the West over Ukraine, Putin and his top officials have begun to openly warn of a military response. So when the man who has stood at Russia’s helm for more than two decades stepped into Moscow’s Manege exhibition hall shortly after noon on Thursday, a single overriding question hung in the air: Are we heading for war?

For months, Russian troops, now numbering some 120,000, have massed near the borders with Ukraine in a state of battlefield readiness that military analysts say gives Moscow the capability to launch an offensive with little prior warning. Fueling its readiness to act are deep-rooted Russian grievances over the eastward expansion of NATO and the weapons supplied by the alliance to Ukraine, which Putin sees as historically Russian but which is slipping rapidly out of his grasp.

“We will act on the basis of our core security,” Putin told the reporters gathered in Moscow and viewers watching on state TV. “We have to keep an eye on what is happening in Ukraine and on when they might attack.”

The notion that Russia is defending itself from a threat, even as it mobilizes its vast armed forces and issues bellicose statements, has become central to Putin’s narrative since Russia published a list of demands for security guarantees from the United States and its allies on Dec. 17, including binding pledges to stop NATO expansion and cease Western drills and other military activities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Ahead of U.S.-Russia talks expected in January, officials in Washington have dismissed most of the demands as unacceptable and impossible to fulfill, citing Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to choose its alliances. A Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has warned, will provoke devastating economic sanctions unlike any Moscow has tried to weather in the past.

Putin remains defiant. “We were fooled by five waves of NATO’s eastward expansion,” he said after a Western reporter asked if he’d commit to not invading Ukraine. “We’re not threatening anyone—they came to us. It’s you who should give guarantees! You! And immediately.”

Asked by one journalist whether he would give an order for soldiers to fire, he answered: “Put that question to the current leadership of Ukraine.”

The yearly press conference is a chance for Putin to appeal directly to the public on issues of domestic politics and foreign policy, though polls suggest that as far as his clash with the West is concerned, he need not worry. A recent survey by the independent Levada Center found that in the escalation over Ukraine, half of Russians blame the United States and NATO, 16 percent blame Ukraine, and only 4 percent implicate Russia.

Analysts say the public mood is largely a product of Russian state TV coverage, which in recent weeks has amplified and reinforced Putin’s warmongering rhetoric and painted him as a leader feared in the West and committed to keeping myriad foreign enemies at bay.

“Russia has placed the United States [in check]. Either they step back voluntarily or we’ll make them do it by force,” presenter Olga Skabeyeva said as she opened the raucous prime-time talk show 60 Minutes this week. “And we make no guarantees about Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

“If you put a gun to our head, we’ll do the same to you,” host Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, intoned on his Sunday night program News of the Week. “We have the capability for that.”

Putin has railed against NATO activities and U.S. unilateralism throughout his presidency, regularly citing a litany of complaints about Western military interventions that overlooked Russian protests. But talk of an ultimatum over NATO expansion and a possible military response in Ukraine has brought ever-growing tensions with the West to a boil.

Yet even as Putin hints at armed conflict with NATO and speaks of defending Russian citizens, he appears increasingly withdrawn from their everyday concerns. That gulf is quite literal, too. The president has spent much of the pandemic ensconced in his private residences, and on Thursday, he kept the front row of journalists 85 feet away, even after they’d taken three coronavirus tests in as many days.

Ultimately, Putin was unable to avoid questions about surging inflation and the devastating toll caused by the COVID-19 pandemic amid few nationwide restrictions and catastrophically low uptake of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. And after he rattled off impressive-sounding figures and excoriated the West for more than three hours, he permitted the kind of buffoonery that usually marks the annual event and helped end things on a lighter note.

“How are your relations with Father Frost?” came a question from a smirking Russian journalist, referring to the Russian Santa Claus. “Does he fulfill your wishes?”

Father Frost helped him stay in power for more than 20 years, Putin said with only the slightest smile, and this year, he added, I hope that he accompanies us all in the achievement of our plans.”

Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and RFE/RL.

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