Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Wednesday that his invasion of Ukraine was taking “longer than expected” but said he had succeeded in seizing new territory, adding that his country’s nuclear weapons were deterring an escalation of the conflict.
Russia’s ability to use nuclear weapons has come under increased scrutiny since it invaded Ukraine in February this year.
“Such a threat is growing, it would be a mistake to hide it,” Putin said, in a televised meeting in Russia with members of his Human Rights Council, which is broadcast every year. Referring to the war, he admitted that he was aware that “it could be a long process.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, displacing millions from their homes and killing and injuring tens of thousands. Western intelligence agencies have said that Moscow had initially planned a lightning operation and had not counted on the conflict now stretching for almost 10 months.
Despite the extent of the war, Putin showed no sign of budging, vowing to “constantly fight for our interests” and “protect ourselves using all available means.” He reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send in troops, saying that for years, the West responded to Russia’s security demands “with spit in the face.”
Comparisons with Peter the Great
Putin described the land gains as “a significant result for Russia,” noting that the Sea of Azov, which Russian troops conquered after a savage siege on the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, “has become Russia’s inland sea.” . In one of his frequent historical references, he bragged that “Peter the Great fought to gain access” to that body of water.
After failing to take Kyiv due to fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia seized wide swaths of the country’s south early in the invasion and captured the key Azov Sea port of Mariupol in May after an intense three-month siege.
In September, Putin illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions, even though his forces do not fully control them: Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, and Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. In 2014, he had illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.
Responding to a growing influx of advanced Western weapons, economic, political and humanitarian aid to kyiv, and what he sees as “inflammatory statements” by Western leaders, Putin has regularly hinted at their possible use of nuclear weapons.
Putin refrains from promising that Russia would not be the first to use nuclear weapons
Asked by a member of the Human Rights Council on Wednesday to promise that Russia would not be the first to use such weapons, Putin demurred. He said that Moscow could not use nuclear weapons at all if it agrees not to use them first and then suffers a nuclear attack.
“If you do not use it first under any circumstance, it means that it will not be the second to use it, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear attack in our territory will be very limited,” he said.
“We are fully aware of what nuclear weapons are”
“We have not gone mad. We are fully aware of what nuclear weapons are,” Putin said. He added, without elaborating: “We have them, and they are as advanced and state-of-the-art as any other nuclear power has.”
In his televised remarks, the Russian leader did not refer to Russia’s defeats on the battlefield or its attempts to cement control over seized regions, but acknowledged problems with supplies, the treatment of wounded soldiers and the limited dropouts.
Russian troops have withdrawn not only from the kyiv area and around the country’s largest city, Kharkov, but also from a large part of the Kherson region. Another problem for Putin is this week’s attacks on air force bases deep in Russia. He put much of the country, especially the border areas, on security alert recently, and fresh signs emerged on Wednesday that Russian officials are strengthening border defensive positions.
Putin says there are at least 150,000 troops deployed
In drone strikes, two strategic Russian airbases more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the Ukrainian border came under attack on Monday. Moscow blamed Ukraine.
Moscow responded with artillery, multiple rocket launcher, missile, tank and mortar strikes against residential buildings and civilian infrastructure, exacerbating damage to the electricity grid.
Ukraine’s private power utility Ukrenergo said temperatures in the eastern areas where it was making repairs had dropped to -17C (nearly 0 Fahrenheit).
At their meeting, Putin discussed the mobilization of 300,000 reservists he ordered in September to bolster forces in Ukraine. He said only about 150,000 have been deployed to combat zones so far and the rest are still undergoing training.
Addressing speculation that the Kremlin might be preparing another mobilization, Putin said: “There is no need for the Defense Ministry and the country to do that.”
The United States describes Putin’s statements as “irresponsible”
The United States on Wednesday described Putin’s statements on nuclear weapons as “gossip.” State Department spokesman Ned Price did not directly address the Russian president’s veiled threats, but said that “any informal talk about nuclear weapons is absolutely irresponsible,” according to the AFP agency.
Price said that nuclear powers around the world since the Cold War, including China, India, the United States and Russia itself, have made it clear that “nuclear war is something that should never be fought and can never be won.”
“We believe that any further rhetoric, whether it be nuclear saber rattling or even raising the specter of the use of tactical nuclear weapons, is irresponsible,” he added.