December 2, 2023

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War in Ukraine: G7 countries focus on helping rebuild Ukraine

War in Ukraine: G7 countries focus on helping rebuild Ukraine
attributed to him…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

It’s been an annual ritual for Vladimir Putin’s Russia: The president holds a large-scale press conference and marathon in December, giving a somewhat choreographed display of openness to questioning and showing his leadership on a range of subjects.

But after a series of military setbacks in his war in Ukraine, with mounting casualties among Russia and its economy faltering due to sanctions, Putin decided to skip it this year. Did Dmitry S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, gave reason as he told reporters during a daily briefing on Monday that the event would not take place, and touched on possibly rescheduling it for the new year.

Mr. Putin held the year-end press conference for the first time in 2001, two years into his presidency. The practice stopped when he was prime minister from 2008 to 2011, but Mr Putin began to maintain it again after his return to the presidency in 2012. The last time he withdrew as prime minister was in 2005.

The December press conference often runs four hours or more, and was one of the few times a year that reporters outside the Kremlin gathering, including foreign correspondents, got a chance to ask questions of Mr. Putin directly — if they were called. (The Kremlin quizzed reporters ahead of time about what they might be tempted to bring up.)

The ranks of journalists in non-government-affiliated Russia are thinner than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this year the government made it illegal to criticize the war or the military. All independent Russian media have closed down or moved abroad, and many foreign media outlets have been forced out of the country.

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Yet it was possible for a Russian or international reporter to detail some of the setbacks in Ukraine and ask Mr. Putin embarrassing questions about them — live on national television.

Mr. Putin “talks regularly to the press, including on foreign visits,” Peskov noted, but such exchanges are limited to the group of correspondents regularly assigned to the Kremlin.

Political analysts had different reactions, from the suggestion that Mr. Putin had no future vision to offer, to the notion that he was finding some of his humdrum habits. Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst, wrote on her Telegram channel that the cancellation was a sign that Mr. Putin did not want to deal with what he saw as minor domestic matters or respond to boring or routine questions.

Mikhail Vinogradov, a political expert who heads the St. Petersburg Foundation for Politics, said the move contributed to a general sense of stagnation in the country. Despite a lot going on, he said, canceling the event captures the feeling of “the situation has stopped.”

Mr. Putin has tried to present life in Russia as usual for most people, an image that is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. Thousands of soldiers have been killed or wounded, something that is generally not reported in state media. The call-up of some 300,000 military conscripts this fall led to demonstrations and prompted thousands of men to flee the country; Ukrainian officials expect that another Russian project is coming soon.

A news conference might expose Mr. Putin to questions about casualties, conscription, or specific battlefield setbacks such as the strike against Wagner or last month’s withdrawal from the captured city of Kherson, a major reversal that has sparked anger and pain among some war hawks in Russia. But Mr. Putin continued to insist that the war in Ukraine was going according to plan.

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Annual press conferences usually spill out into a circus-like atmosphere, with reporters waving banners with some of Mr. Putin’s signature phrases, or donning costumes from their home regions, hoping to catch his eye and get a question. The sessions are a fixture in his calendar, an opportunity for Mr. Putin to display his command of the realities that affect all aspects of Russian life and, ostensibly, to show him as receptive to all inquiries.

Putin favors scripted events, however, and in the past week he has appeared in several highly coordinated public performances intended to reinforce his version of realityAt a time when Russia’s victory in Ukraine seems more distant than ever. Those televised events presented Mr. Putin as a decisive leader, still fully in power.