President Vladimir Putin has canceled his annual marathon news conference following a series of setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefield – a tacit acknowledgment that something has gone terribly wrong with the Russian leader’s war effort.
Putin typically uses the end-of-year ceremonies to polish his image, answering broad questions about domestic and foreign policy to demonstrate his grasp of detail and to project an appearance of openness amid the tight schedule of the event.
But this year, with his forces at a disadvantage in Ukraine, troubling questions about Russian military blunders cannot be avoided, even in a well-designed campaign. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on Monday that Putin will not hold a news conference this month, without explaining why.
The Ministry of Defense wrote in comments on Twitter: “While it is almost certain that issues are usually reviewed in advance, the cancellation may be due to growing concerns about widespread anti-war sentiment in Russia.”
“Kremlin officials are almost certainly sensitive to the possibility that any event attended by Putin could be hijacked by unsanctioned discussions of ‘special military operations,'” it said, using Moscow’s term for the war.
Some of his previous performances lasted more than 4 1/2 hours, during which he sometimes faced some pointed questions, but used it to mock West or discredit his domestic opponents.
Putin also canceled another annual event this year, a televised show in which he takes questions from the public in an effort to cultivate his father-of-the-nation image.
He has so far failed to deliver his annual televised State of the Union address to Parliament, a constitutional duty. Putin’s address has not been dated.
The Kremlin has suppressed any criticism of its invasion of Ukraine by the liberal antiwar camp, shutting down independent media outlets and criminalizing the dissemination of any information that differs from the official view — including calling the movement a war. But it faces growing criticism from Russian hardliners who have denounced the president as weak and indecisive and called for an intensified crackdown on Ukraine.
Political analyst Abbas Galyamov said in a video commentary that the decision not to hold a news conference was likely because Putin “has nothing to say from a strategic point of view”.
Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, saying Moscow was forced to “demilitarize” the country in the face of NATO’s refusal to give Russia assurances that it would not invite Ukraine to join the alliance. Ukraine and much of the world have condemned Russia’s attack on its neighbor as an act of unprovoked aggression.
Putin and his officials hoped to crush Ukrainian forces within days, but fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by Western weapons, quickly derailed those plans. Russian troops withdrew from the area around Kiev in March after an unsuccessful attempt to quickly capture the Ukrainian capital.
Ukraine recaptured large swaths of the Kharkov region in the northeast in September and control of the strategic port city of Kherson in the south last month.
Putin’s order in September to mobilize 300,000 reservists has so far failed to reverse Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield. The mobilization order has prompted hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee the country to avoid being recruited, and those who have been drafted have reported severe shortages of key equipment and supplies.
Last week, Putin made a rare acknowledgment that the Ukraine campaign was taking longer than he expected, acknowledging that winding it down could be a “long process”. In the meantime, he continued to claim it was on track and would achieve its goals.