President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Friday threatened to escalate his war in Ukraine, even as he declared that the “main goal” of his invasion was limited to taking control of the Donbas region in the country’s east.
In a news conference in Uzbekistan at the conclusion of a regional summit, Putin claimed that Ukraine was attempting to carry out “terrorist acts” inside Russia and “to damage our civilian infrastructure.”
“We are, indeed, responding rather restrainedly, but that’s for the time being,” Putin said. “The Russian armed forces delivered a couple of sensitive blows there. Well, what about that? We will assume that these are warning strikes. If the situation continues to develop in this way, the answer will be more serious.”
Putin appeared to be referring to Russian cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure in recent days that caused blackouts in parts of the country and damaged a dam in the southern city of Kryvyi Rih.
His comments came after two days of meetings with Asian leaders showed that his war had strained Russia’s relationships with some of its most important international partners. On Thursday, Putin acknowledged in a meeting with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, that China had “questions and concerns” about the war. And on Friday, Putin told Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India that he knew of the “concerns that you constantly express” about the war.
“We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible,” Putin told Modi in televised comments at the beginning of their meeting.
In Friday’s news conference, Putin made his first extensive public comments after Ukraine’s rout of Russian forces in the country’s northeast last weekend – a battlefield defeat that sparked unusual criticism of the Kremlin inside Russia. Supporters of the war said on state television that Putin was not waging the war with sufficient intensity.
Putin played down the Ukrainian counteroffensive, saying with a smirk, “Let’s see how it goes and how it ends.”
Asked by a Russian journalist whether Russia’s war plan needed to be adjusted, Putin insisted that it did not. But he also defined the main goal as control only of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has recognized the independence of two Russian-backed separatist “republics.” The comment appeared to signal that the Kremlin saw other territory that Russian forces now occupy, such as the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, as being of secondary importance.
And Putin made no mention Friday of the broader goals of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine that he announced when he started the war in February – terms that were widely seen as Putin declaring his intention to achieve political control over all of Ukraine.
“The main goal is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas,” Putin said. “This work continues despite these counteroffensive attempts by the Ukrainian army. The general staff considers some things important, some things secondary, but the main task remains unchanged, and it is being implemented.”
Russia currently occupies most, but not all, of the Donbas. Several key towns and cities in the region’s Donetsk province, such as Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, are still controlled by Ukraine.
In his news conference, Putin did not set any conditions for possible peace talks with Ukraine – a departure from the rhetoric of senior Russian officials who have demanded total capitulation by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Asked under what conditions “dialogue” with Ukraine would be possible, Putin responded: “The first condition is that they agree. They don’t want to.”
An adviser to Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Friday that Russian forces had brought “rampant terror, violence, torture and mass murders” to the territory they occupied in Ukraine.
“We have no right to leave people alone with the Evil,” Podolyak said on Twitter. “‘Conflict resolution’ is extremely simple. Immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine.”
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