Putin skips annual press conference, avoiding possible war questions

It’s been an annual ritual in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia: the president holds a full-scale, marathon press conference in December, giving a somewhat choreographed display of openness to questioning and demonstrating his mastery of a range of topics .

But after a series of military setbacks in his war in Ukraine, with Russia’s losses mounting and its economy faltering under sanctions, Mr Putin decided to skip tradition. Dmitry S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, gave no reason when he told reporters at a daily briefing on Monday that the event would not take place this month; he considered the possibility of it being postponed to the new year.

Mr. Putin first held the year-end press conference in 2001, two years into his presidency. He suspended practice after becoming prime minister in 2008, but resumed it after returning to the presidency in 2012. The last time he withdrew from the event, as president, was in 2005.

Often spanning four hours or more, the December press conference was one of the few times during the year when journalists from outside the Kremlin pool, including foreign correspondents, have the opportunity to question Mr. Putin directly – if called. But the Kremlin also asked journalists in advance what they would be inclined to ask Mr Putin.

The ranks of journalists in Russia who are not subject to the government are thinner than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this year the government has criminalized criticism of the war or the military. Independent Russian news media have all either closed or moved abroad, and many foreign news outlets have also been forced to leave the country.

Even so, it would have been possible for a Russian or international journalist to detail some of the setbacks in Ukraine and ask Mr Putin embarrassing questions about them – live on national television.

Mr. Peskov noted that Mr. Putin “regularly speaks to the press, including during foreign visits”, but these exchanges are limited to the pool of journalists regularly assigned to the Kremlin.

Political analysts had a variety of reactions, ranging from suggesting Mr Putin had no future vision to offer to suggesting he found some of his customs monotonous. One, Tatiana Stanovaya, wrote on her Telegram channel that the cancellation was a sign that Mr Putin did not want to engage in what he considered minor household matters or answer questions. boring or routine.

Mikhail Vinogradov, the political scientist who heads the St. Petersburg Political Foundation, said the move contributed to a general sense of stagnation in the country. Even though there’s a lot going on, he said, the event’s cancellation feels like “the situation is on hold.”

The invasion ordered by Mr Putin in February left Russia increasingly isolated, economically and politically, as Western nations and others rallied around Ukraine, showing a rare unity of purpose that they demonstrated again with a series of diplomatic moves on Monday.

The leaders of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies held a video meeting and pledged to help rebuild Ukraine, which has suffered widespread physical devastation, as well as continue to arm it. They said a new body to coordinate international economic and reconstruction aid – similar to the one that has operated for months to organize military aid – could meet for the first time as early as January. A broader international conference on aid to Ukraine will be held in Paris on Tuesday.

“We strongly support efforts to ensure Ukraine’s immediate financial stability and its recovery and reconstruction towards a sustainable, prosperous and democratic future,” the G7 countries said in a statement. a joint statement.

Address the meeting Via video link, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky focused primarily on his country’s need for additional weapons, but also said, “We need to be more active in reconstruction.

European Union foreign ministers held a separate meeting on Monday and agreed to increase a fund to reimburse countries for war material granted to Ukraine at 5.5 billion euros (nearly 5.8 billion dollars) against 3.5 billion euros.

Russian bombings have crippled Ukraine’s energy systems, cutting off electricity, heating and sometimes water to millions of people at once, raising fears of a cold and deadly winter.

Military analysts say increasingly harsh weather conditions could also allow warring armies to resume more intense frontline fighting. Autumn rains have reduced dirt roads and fields to bogs, slowing military movements, but the ground is frozen again.

The heaviest fighting took place in the eastern region of Donbass, where Ukraine claimed to have dealt a blow to the Wagner Group, the mercenary corps directed by Yevgheny V. Prigozhin, a close ally of Mr. Putin, who operated in concert with the Russian military. Ukrainian officials said their forces on Sunday fired a missile that hit a hotel housing Wagner fighters in Kadiivka, a small town in Luhansk province.

Exiled head of Ukraine’s regional administration of Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said in a message on the Telegram app that “many” members of the Wagner force had been killed, which could not be confirmed. . There was no statement from Wagner.

Mr Putin has tried to present life in Russia as usual for most people, an image that has become more difficult to maintain. Thousands of soldiers have been killed or injured, which is usually not mentioned in state media. A mishandled call for around 300,000 military conscripts this fall sparked protests and caused thousands to flee the country; Ukrainian officials predict another Russian draft is coming soon.

A press conference could expose Mr Putin to questions about casualties, conscription or specific battlefield setbacks like the strike against Wagner or the retreat from the captured city of Kherson. He continues to insist that the war in Ukraine is proceeding as planned.

Mr Putin’s annual press conference usually takes place in a circus-like atmosphere, with reporters waving signs containing some of the Russian leader’s signature phrases or wearing costumes from their home regions, hoping to attract his attention and to be able to ask a question. The sessions are a fixed feature of his schedule, a chance for Mr Putin to display his mastery of the facts affecting all aspects of Russian life and, ostensibly, to be receptive to all questions.

Mr Putin prefers scripted events, however, and in the past week he made several highly staged public appearances. aimed at reinforcing his version of reality, at a time when a Russian victory in Ukraine seems more distant than ever. These televised events presented Mr. Putin as a decisive leader, always in charge.

The report was provided by Erika Solomon, Carly Olson, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Yan Zhuang.

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