Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is taking longer than expected but hailed the seizure of his neighbour’s territory as a major achievement and said Russia’s nuclear weapons are deterring escalation of the conflict.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Mr Putin said of the more than nine-month-old war that began with Russia’s invasion on February 24 and has displaced millions from their homes, and killed and wounded tens of thousands.
Despite its length, he showed no signs of letting up, vowing to “consistently fight for our interests” and “protect ourselves using all means available”.
He reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send in troops, saying that for years, the West’s response to Russia security demands were “only spit in the face”.
Speaking in a televised meeting in Russia with members of his Human Rights Council, the president described the land gains as “a significant result for Russia”, noting that the Sea of Azov “has become Russia’s internal sea”.
In one of his frequent historic references to a Russian leader he admires, he added that “Peter the Great fought to get access” to that body of water.
After failing to take Kyiv due to fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia seized broad swathes of southern Ukraine at the start of the invasion and captured the key Sea of Azov port of Mariupol in May after a nearly three-month siege.
In September, Mr Putin illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions even though his forces did not completely control them: Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, and Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. In 2014, he had illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
In response to an increasing influx of advanced western weapons, economic, political and humanitarian aid to Kyiv and what he saw as western leaders’ inflammatory statements, Mr Putin has periodically hinted at his potential use of nuclear weapons.
When a member of the Human Rights Council asked him on Wednesday to pledge that Russia would not be the first to use such weapons, Mr Putin declined, saying Moscow would not be able to use nuclear weapons at all if it agreed not to use them first and then came under a nuclear strike.
“If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he said.
Mr Putin rejected western criticism that his previous nuclear weapons comments amounted to sabre-rattling, claiming they were “not a factor provoking an escalation of conflicts, but a factor of deterrence”.
“We haven’t gone mad. We are fully aware of what nuclear weapons are,” he said, adding: “We have them, and they are more advanced and state-of-the-art than what any other nuclear power has.”
The Russian leader did not address Russia’s battlefield setbacks or its attempts to cement control over the seized regions but acknowledged problems with supplies, treatment of wounded soldiers and desertions.
Fresh signs emerged on Wednesday that Russian officials are strengthening border defensive positions.
In the Kursk region bordering Ukraine, the governor posted photos of new concrete anti-tank barriers in open fields. On Tuesday, the governor had said a fire broke out at an airport in the region after a drone strike.
In neighbouring Belgorod, workers were expanding anti-tank barriers and officials were organising “self-defence units”. Belgorod has seen numerous fires and explosions, apparently from cross-border attacks.
In two of the most brazen drone attacks, two strategic Russian air bases more than 300 miles from the Ukraine border were struck on Monday. Moscow blamed Ukraine.
Russia responded with strikes by artillery, rocket launchers, missiles, tanks and mortars at residential buildings and civilian infrastructure, worsening damage to the power grid.
Private Ukrainian power utility Ukrenergo said temperatures in eastern areas where it was making repairs had dropped as low as minus 17C.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s presidential office said Russian forces overnight struck nine regions in the east and south, and resumed using Iranian-made Shahed drones after supply difficulties.
In the city of Kherson, a 43-year-old waterworks employee was killed when Russian shelling ignited a fire and damaged residential buildings, the presidential office said.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Russia appears to be slowing its military activities in Ukraine for the winter to regroup and launch a new offensive when the weather warms.