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A woman walks past an electronic screen on the facade of a building showing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a quote from his annual end-of-year news conference, in Moscow, on Dec. 14.MAXIM SHEMETOV/Reuters

With the war in Ukraine set to enter its third year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he has the stamina for a long fight, even as the West increasingly looks as though it may not.

In a belligerent message delivered in a question-and-answer session carried live Thursday on Russian television, Mr. Putin said his war aims remain unchanged.

“There will be peace when we achieve our goals.”

Those goals, he said, remain the demilitarization of Ukraine and the “de-Nazification” of its government, which the Kremlin falsely describes as far right.

“Either we get an agreement or we resolve this by force,” he said. One year after he illegally claimed to have annexed four Ukrainian regions – in addition to Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014 – Mr. Putin made clear that his territorial ambitions in Ukraine include the southern port of Odesa, which “is a Russian city, everyone knows that.”

The long-time Russian leader repeated his argument that the United States and its allies had forced Russia into launching its invasion almost two years ago by moving to bring Ukraine into the NATO military alliance. Another condition of peace with Ukraine, he said, would be Kyiv adopting official neutrality.

Mr. Putin sounded quite confident about his country’s chances on the battlefield, mocking this year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive, which failed to break through the main Russian defensive lines. He said Russian troops – which occupy about 17 per cent of Ukrainian territory – are now back on the offensive. “Almost along the entire front line, our armed forces, let’s say modestly, are improving their position.”

Ukrainian and Western military analysts agree that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has largely come to an end and that Moscow’s forces have regained the initiative along much of the front. Russian troops, however, are said to be suffering heavy casualties in their effort to retake the industrial city of Avdiivka, in the southeastern Donetsk region. Avdiivka is almost 700 kilometres from Kyiv, which Russia tried and failed to capture at the outset of the war.

At one point in the more than four-hour-long Q&A session, Mr. Putin took questions from Russian troops said to be stationed near the front line in Ukraine. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the background.

Mr. Putin said Western military aid for Ukraine – key to its resilience through the first 21 months of the war – is running out. “Today Ukraine produces almost nothing. Everything is brought from the West as a freebie, but the free stuff is going to run out some day, and it seems it already is, little by little,” he said. Meanwhile, he said, Russia has some 617,000 troops in Ukraine – including 244,000 conscript soldiers – and does not currently need another round of mobilization.

The remarks were partly a reference to the wrangling that continues in Washington over the fate of some US$50-billion in military aid for Ukraine, which Republicans in Congress say they will continue to block unless the Biden administration agrees to tough new controls on the U.S. border with Mexico.

The 71-year-old Mr. Putin complained about what he called the international community’s double standard toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which Moscow dubs a “special military operation” – and Israel’s war to eradicate the Islamist Hamas movement from the Gaza Strip.

He called the war in Gaza a “catastrophe” and said it had led to rising antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment around the world. He said Russia supported Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

Thursday’s carefully staged event saw Mr. Putin alternate between taking questions from Kremlin-friendly journalists and having prescreened interactions with supposed “ordinary Russians.” It was the first time Mr. Putin has held his annual news conference or call-in show – in the past, they were separate events – since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022.

Almost unmentioned in Thursday’s television marathon was the fact Mr. Putin – who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister since 1999 – recently announced that he will run again for another six-year term in presidential elections scheduled for March. Previous elections have seen the Kremlin screen out all serious opposition candidates so that voting day is a de facto coronation.

Mr. Putin’s most prominent political opponent, Alexey Navalny, has been jailed since early 2021, shortly after he survived a poisoning that the Bellingcat open-source investigations group found was carried out by Russia’s GRU military intelligence service. Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation says he disappeared from his prison eight days ago, shortly after posting a message via his lawyers to his social-media accounts that called on Russians to vote for any candidate other than Mr. Putin in next year’s election.

“Putin is afraid of a man whom he tried to poison, put in jail, has been kept in the punishment cell with a lack of food and no heat – never enough, fear is high, now Putin is cutting Navalny off all means of communications,” Russian journalist and historian Yevgenia Albats, now living in exile, wrote Wednesday on X.

Responding to a question from The New York Times – one of the few Western news organizations invited to attend the news conference – Mr. Putin confirmed that Russia was in negotiations with the U.S. over the fate of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, as well as Paul Whelan, an Ottawa-born former U.S. Marine. Both men are in prison in Russia on espionage charges that The Wall Street Journal and Mr. Whelan’s family say are trumped up. Mr. Putin described the negotiations with Washington as “difficult,” but said he hoped the issue would be resolved.

None of the journalists or citizens in attendance asked Mr. Putin about the fact he was indicted in March by the International Criminal Court for overseeing the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, which is a war crime.

As the TV marathon played out, Oleg Orlov, the chairman of Memorial, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning human-rights organization, was on trial in Moscow for supposedly “discrediting the Russian army” by publicly opposing the invasion of Ukraine.

“I have no remorse or regret. Neither for protesting this horrendous war, nor for deciding to publicly define the current political regime in my country,” Mr. Orlov told the court in his closing remarks. “I love my country and I want it to have a strong state that is based on law instead of brute force. Now, unfortunately, the opposite is true.”

Memorial said the Moscow court reversed Mr. Orlov’s previous conviction on Thursday and sent the case back to the prosecutor’s office. Mr. Orlov was to remain in prison, however.

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