Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Wednesday that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is taking longer than expected but hailed the seizure of his neighbor's territory as a major achievement and said his country’s nuclear weapons are deterring escalation.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Putin said of the more than 9-month-old war that began with Russia’s invasion on 24 February. The war has displaced millions from their homes, and killed and wounded tens of thousands.
Despite its length, Putin has shown no signs of letting up, vowing to “consistently fight for our interests" and “protect ourselves using all means available”.
Speaking in a televised meeting in Russia with members of his Human Rights Council, Putin described the land gains as “a significant result for Russia,” noting that the “Sea of Azov has become Russia’s internal sea.”
After failing to take Kyiv due to fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia seized broad swaths 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, Putin illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine even though his forces didn't completely control them: Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, and Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. In 2014, he 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 inflammatory statements by Western leaders, Putin has periodically hinted at his potential use of nuclear weapons.
When a member of the Human Rights Council asked him Wednesday to pledge that Russia would not be the first to use such weapons, Putin demurred.
“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.
Putin, who has repeatedly said Russia was ready to use “all available means” to protect its territory, including the illegally annexed areas of Ukraine, has rejected Western criticism that those statements amounted to nuclear saber-rattling.
He claimed they were “not a factor provoking an escalation of conflicts, but a factor of deterrence”.