By Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin
MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin vowed on Thursday to fight on in Ukraine until Moscow secures the country’s “demilitarization”, “denazification” and neutrality, unless Kyiv accepts a deal that achieves those goals.
Fielding questions from the public, media, and at one point frontline soldiers, Putin took an uncompromising stance on Ukraine at a four-hour press conference held as he seeks another six-year presidential term in March.
Putin, now 71, told Russians his initial goals in Ukraine had not changed and that Russian forces had taken the initiative on the battlefield in the “special military operation” he launched on Feb. 24, 2022.
“Practically along the entire line of contact, our armed forces are, shall we say, modestly improving their position. Virtually all are in an active stage of action,” Putin said.
Since the start of the war, Kyiv has stepped up its pursuit of NATO and European Union membership, steps that it regards as vital for its self-defence and independence from Russia but are opposed by Moscow.
Putin reiterated his view that the Western military alliance’s eastward expansion was the main cause of the war – a view dismissed by the West, which sees Putin as the aggressor.
“There will be peace when we achieve our goals…As for demilitarisation, if they (the Ukrainians) don’t want to come to an agreement – well, then we are forced to take other measures, including military ones.
“Either we get an agreement, agree on certain parameters (on the size and strength of Ukraine’s military)… or we solve this by force. This is what we will strive for.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said negotiations with Russia are impossible until all Russian soldiers have been expelled from Ukrainian territory, and is seeking further Western assistance to defend his country.
Kyiv and its allies have also dismissed Putin’s suggestion that Zelenskiy, a Jew, heads a “Nazi regime”.
Putin, Russia’s paramount leader for over two decades, has cast himself as the right man to continue leading Russia through a conflict that he sees as existential for Russia’s survival. Kyiv and its Western allies see the war on Ukraine as an unprovoked colonial-style land grab.
At one stage in the marathon press conference, Putin took questions from Russian forces fighting near the front line, with gunfire echoing in the background.
CRITICISM OF WEST
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, and millions have been forced from their homes.
Putin said he had detected signs that Western enthusiasm for providing Ukraine with military and financial aid was waning, but that he believed Kyiv would keep receiving help for now.
He said NATO’s eastward expansion had forced Russia into war.
“The unbridled desire to creep towards our borders, taking Ukraine into NATO, all this led to this tragedy,” he said, urging the U.S. to seek compromise instead of trying to resolve matters “with sanctions and military intervention”.
Putin said the Russian economy, buffeted by Western sanctions, was set to grow by 3.5% this year, but also said that annual inflation could reach 8% and blamed the government for sharp rises in the price of eggs.
As he spoke, questions from the public flashed up on a giant screen with some asking why everything was becoming so costly.
In a rebuke to Israel, he said Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza were very different.
“…The Secretary General of the United Nations called today’s Gaza Strip the biggest graveyard of children in the world. It is an objective assessment,” he said.
Kyiv, however, says hundreds of children have been killed in Russian air strikes that have flattened residential areas in town, cities and villages across Ukraine despite Moscow’s assertion that its does not deliberately target civilians.
Putin ruled out a further wave of military mobilisation in Russia for now, adding that Moscow had 617,000 Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
“The flow of men ready to defend our homeland… is not decreasing… There is no need for mobilisation as of today,” he said.
(Reporting by Reuters, Writing by Andrew Osborn, Editing by Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage)