President Vladimir Putin has pledged Russia would triumph in all of its “noble” war aims in Ukraine, using his first public comments on the conflict in a week to goad the West for failing to bring Moscow to heel with economic sanctions.
Addressing the war in public for the first time since Russian forces retreated from northern Ukraine after they were halted at the gates of Kyiv, Putin said the situation in Ukraine was a tragedy.
However, Russia had no choice but to fight, he said, because it had to defend the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine and prevent its former Soviet neighbour from becoming an anti-Russian springboard for Moscow’s enemies.
“Our task is to fulfil and achieve all the goals set, minimising losses. And we will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan originally proposed by the General Staff,” Putin said on Tuesday during a televised news conference.
Sixty-one years to the day since the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Putin was shown by state television on a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome 3,450 miles (5,550km) east of Moscow.
Asked by Russian space agency workers if the operation in Ukraine would achieve its goals, Putin said, “Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt at all.”
“Its goals are absolutely clear and noble,” Putin said. “There is no doubt that the goals will be achieved.”
“That blitzkrieg on which our foes were counting on did not work,” Putin said of the West’s crippling sanctions imposed after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Putin, who has said Ukraine and Russia are essentially one people, has cast the war as an inevitable confrontation with the United States, which he said was threatening Russia by meddling in its back yard.
The West has condemned the war as a brutal imperial-style land grab of a sovereign country. Ukraine has said it is fighting for its survival after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and on February 21 recognised two of its rebel regions as sovereign.
Putin, who appeared frequently on Russian television in the early days of the war, has largely retreated from public view since Russia’s withdrawal from northern Ukraine this month.
His only public appearance in the past week was at the funeral of a nationalist legislator, where he did not directly address the war. On Monday, he met the visiting chancellor of Austria at a country residence outside Moscow but no images of that meeting were released.
‘Impossible’ to isolate
The Russian president dismissed claims Moscow’s army was struggling against the Ukrainian resistance and was forced to withdraw from around major cities, including the capital Kyiv.
“Our actions in certain regions of Ukraine were just related to containing [enemy] forces, destroying military infrastructure, creating conditions for a more active operation in Donbas,” Putin said referring to a region in eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by pro-Russia separatists.
Asked about reports of the discovery of hundreds of dead bodies of civilians in the town of Bucha outside Kyiv after the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops, Putin dismissed them as “fake”.
Putin drew an analogy between Gagarin’s first space flight 61 years ago and Russia’s defiance today.
“The sanctions were total, the isolation was complete but the Soviet Union was still first in space,” said Putin, 69, recalling his own wonderment as a schoolboy learning of the achievement.
“We don’t intend to be isolated,” Putin said. “It is impossible to severely isolate anyone in the modern world – especially such a vast country as Russia.”
Kremlin chiefs have long cited the Soviet Union’s success in space – just more than a decade after the devastation of World War II – as a cautionary tale about Russia’s ability to achieve spectacular results against the odds.
Russia’s Cold War space successes such as Gagarin’s flight and the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite from Earth, have a particular pertinence for Russia: Both events shocked the United States.
The launch of Sputnik 1 triggered the public phase of the Cold War space race and prompted US President Dwight D Eisenhower to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Still, Russia’s economy is tiny compared with that of the superpower Soviet Union – and has fallen behind the United States and China on most technological fronts.
Last year, Russia’s nominal economic output was just $1.6 trillion – smaller than Italy’s – and approximately 7 percent of the $22.9 trillion US economy.
Russia’s economy is on track to contract by more than 10 percent in 2022, the worst decline since the years following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Putin said Ukraine’s “inconsistency” during peace talks with Russia was slowing down the process.
“Yesterday evening, the Ukrainian side changed something again. Such inconsistency on fundamental points does create certain difficulties in reaching final agreements,” he said, adding that until an agreement is reached, “the military operation will continue until the full completion of [its] tasks.”
Later on Tuesday, Kyiv said the continuing talks with Russia were “extremely difficult”.
“Negotiations are extremely difficult. The Russian side adheres to its traditional tactics of public pressure on the negotiation process, including through certain public statements,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said in written comments to reporters.