Vladimir Putin has called the situation in Ukraine “extremely complicated” in an apparent attempt to prepare Russia’s population for a long-lasting war as his sputtering invasion nears the 10-month mark.
In an address to security officers on Tuesday, the Russian president admitted they faced difficulties in four regions of Ukraine partly occupied by Russian forces, saying working there was “hard.”
Putin annexed four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine in September in an attempt to secure Russia’s gains on the ground and deter western support for Kyiv.
But the gambit has backfired spectacularly as Ukraine’s counter-offensive, backed with supplies of advanced western weaponry, has retaken territory Putin claimed as Russian. Among the Ukrainian gains are the city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia had captured during the invasion, which began in February.
“The people living there, the Russian citizens, rely on your protection. And it is your duty to ensure their security, rights and freedoms,” Putin said.
Putin’s comments marked the second time this month he has admitted the war in Ukraine — which he originally thought would be finished in less than a week — is set to go on for a long time.
Earlier in December, he told his human rights council the invasion could be a “long process”. However, he also celebrated the territorial gains from the annexation.
Putin appears to have little intention of climbing down from his maximalist goals — which essentially amount to destroying Ukraine in its current form — even as Russia struggles to gain ground, according to former senior Kremlin officials.
Russia has repeatedly said it is open to peace talks with Kyiv, but only on the condition that all of its demands are accepted.
The US and its European allies are continuing to back Ukraine, which has made the recovery of its lost territory a compulsory precondition for any talks.
“I would venture to say that things could be a heck of a lot less complicated for the Russians in Ukraine if they would just get the hell out, and just take their troops out of the country,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday. “Short of that, which obviously doesn’t seem to be something that Mr Putin is willing to engage as an idea of simplifying issues in Ukraine, we’re going to continue to make sure we can support Ukraine’s effort to defend itself.”
Putin also indicated Russia’s domestic crackdown on dissent and heightened preparations for possible threats would continue.
Russia has made “discrediting the armed forces” — essentially any unauthorised criticism of the war — illegal, while Putin declared martial law in the four annexed regions and raised alert levels in eight other provinces on the Ukrainian border.
“Places where citizens congregate, strategic sites, and transport and energy infrastructure should be under constant control,” Putin said on Tuesday.
“Counter-intelligence agencies, including military counter-intelligence, must be as prepared and as concentrated as possible,” Putin added. “The actions of western secret services must be clamped down on harshly. Traitors, spies, and saboteurs must be exposed in good time.”