KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Tuesday that he could order his troops to try to seize more land in Ukraine to protect bordering Russian territory — a threat with questionable credibility because the Kremlin lacks full control over areas it already annexed.
In some of his most detailed remarks about the war in months, the Russian leader also asserted that Ukrainian forces had suffered “catastrophic” losses in a new counteroffensive, and he said he was not contemplating a new troop mobilization, as many Russians have feared. But he did not rule out another troop call-up later. And he reiterated Russia’s claim that Ukraine was responsible for blowing up a Dnieper River dam that caused vast flooding on both sides of the front line last week in the country’s south.
Putin’s comments at an open meeting with military journalists and bloggers followed Kyiv’s claims that Ukrainian troops had captured a handful of villages in the early stages of the counteroffensive as they seek to push Russian troops out of four regions of Ukraine the Kremlin illegally annexed last fall. The meeting, which lasted more than two hours, came after Russian missile strikes in central Ukraine killed at least 11 people overnight.
Putin said Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been unsuccessful. He asserted that Ukraine lost 160 tanks and over 360 other armored vehicles, while Russia lost 54 tanks since the new assault began. Those claims could not be immediately verified. Ukrainian officials typically do not comment on losses.
The White House offered no immediate reaction to Putin’s claims.
A U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said Putin’s comments were “not accurate” and cautioned against putting any stock in Russia’s public assessments. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer an internal assessment, did not detail how Putin’s claims were misleading.
Referring to alleged Ukrainian incursions into Russia and shelling of border regions, Putin said he was considering whether “to create on Ukrainian territory a kind of sanitary zone at such a distance from which it would be impossible to get our territory.”
It was not clear whether Russia — which failed to capture Kyiv and its surroundings early in the war and later had to give up other territory it had captured, even in annexed areas — could afford to risk expanding its gains in Ukraine while trying to repel the evolving counteroffensive in several sectors of the more than 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line.
In recent weeks, Russia’s border areas have come under increasing attack, with the Kremlin blaming Ukrainian forces for incursions of fighters and drone strikes.
Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed Kyiv’s involvement in the attacks but have obliquely welcomed them. Russian volunteer units sympathizing with Ukraine have claimed responsibility for the incursions.
Local leaders in Russia have pleaded with the Kremlin to do more to protect residents, some of whom have been evacuated to safer areas.
Putin acknowledged that Russian authorities should have foreseen and prepared to stop such attacks. Earlier in the war, the border was better protected because Russia held more adjacent Ukrainian territory, but Kremlin forces withdrew from much of it last fall under the brunt of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin’s long meeting with military bloggers, along with war correspondents from traditional news media, was a dramatic acknowledgement of their importance in conveying the Kremlin’s viewpoint.
In other remarks, Putin also said:
— Russia’s defense industry has ratcheted up production of drones and other weapons but needs more, and the West is also struggling to produce more weapons and ammunition.
— Russia might pull out of a U.N.-backed deal to allow grain shipments from Ukraine through a demilitarized Black Sea maritime corridor.
— The United States could stop the war by halting weapons shipments to Ukraine, leaving it too weak to carry on the fight.
— The West will eventually realize it won’t succeed in Ukraine. “They will never see it happen. Never.”
While Putin spoke, the State Department announced that the United States would send Ukraine a new military aid package worth up to $325 million, including a range of rockets, missiles and other munitions.
Putin mocked alleged Ukrainian battlefield losses, including of high-tech Western equipment Kyiv has received. He said German-made Leopard battle tanks and U.S.-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles “are burning really well.”
Earlier Tuesday, his defense ministry published a video showing what it said was a Leopard 2 tank and a Bradley fighting vehicle captured from Ukrainian forces. According to the ministry, Russian soldiers shot the video after fierce fighting in Zaporizhzhia. It was not immediately possible to verify the video’s authenticity.
Ukrainian officials have been nearly as forceful as Putin in vowing to win the war, with Zelenskyy insisting his people will not relent until all of Ukraine is liberated from Russian control.
Contrasting with Putin’s dim view of Ukraine’s progress in its counteroffensive, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told President Joe Biden on Tuesday that Ukrainians are “making progress,” and that could bolster their position in any peace talks.
“It’s still early days, but what we do know is that the more land that Ukrainians are able to liberate, the stronger hand they will have at the negotiating table,” Stoltenberg said at a White House meeting.
Also Tuesday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, told Ukrainian TV that the country’s forces are continuing the offensive in four areas in the south and east.
The head of Ukraine’s ground troops said forces were “moving forward” outside Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s east. Oleksandr Syrskyi wrote on Telegram that Russian forces are “losing positions on the flanks.”
Elsewhere, Ukrainian authorities said at least 11 people were killed and 36 wounded overnight in a Russian missile strike on the city of Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s hometown.
Images from the latest missile attack relayed by Zelenskyy on his Telegram channel showed firefighters battling a blaze as flames poked through broken windows in a damaged apartment building. Charred and damaged vehicles littered the ground.
“More terrorist missiles,” he wrote. “Russian killers continue their war against residential buildings, ordinary cities and people.”
Without providing details of the locations or timing, the Russian Defense Ministry said Russian forces used long-range air-launched cruise missiles to hit Ukrainian military reserves and depots holding Western weapons and ammunition.
The governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Serhiy Lysak, wrote on Telegram that the bodies of seven people were recovered from a private company’s warehouse, and “another four destinies were cut short” at the apartment building.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington and Andrew Katell in New York contributed to this report.
Read the full article here