December 14, 2023 - 4:30pm

“The existence of our country without sovereignty is impossible. It will simply not exist”.

Thus began Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marathon four-hour “Year-End Recap” today. The combination of the annual “direct line” call-in session, in which he addresses citizens’ grievances, with the year-end journalists’ press conference made for some odd bedfellows — Russia’s leader slipped seamlessly between discussions of the price of eggs in Dagestan, whether grandmothers can be replaced by robots, and the Israel-Hamas war.

Putin missed both events last year, apparently for fear of awkward queries about Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. His return to the microphone today was not the only sign of a more confident, upbeat leader. This time, embracing the topic of Ukraine, he bragged that the Russian economy had survived sanctions so effectively that Russians could “not just feel confident but also progress” and revelled in Ukraine’s stalled counter-offensive, saying that “practically along the entire line of contact our armed forces are improving their situation, to put it modestly”.

Indeed, Russia’s President has every reason to feel more comfortable. Last week, Putin announced his intention to run for a fifth term in March 2024’s presidential election. With the opposition crushed and the media subjugated, a mandate until 2030 is all but guaranteed, and it could last until 2036, should Russia’s latter-day Tsar feel like running for a sixth term.

His press conference was well-timed, to say the least, coming at a moment when support for Ukraine is particularly fractured. The ongoing EU summit has been dominated by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s opposition to the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU. Meanwhile, this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy travelled to Washington for meetings with US President Joe Biden. While Biden offered a $200 million “drawdown” to maintain supplies for Ukraine, Republicans have continued to block a supplemental congressional aid package.

Although Republicans stressed that their intransigence was to secure a linked agreement on US border security, the impasse is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Following Ukraine’s disappointing counter-offensive, US officials told the New York Times that they and Kyiv are scrambling to hammer out a new strategy against a resurgent Russia now freshly stocked with new ammunition, missiles and Iranian drones. Divisions are becoming apparent: Ukraine wanting to go on the attack to gain global attention, while the US wants Kyiv to consolidate its men and territory in order to develop its weapons production capability over 2024.

Despite these looming challenges, today did not go perfectly for Putin either. Questions such as “When will our President pay attention to his own country?” and “When will the real Russia be the same as the one on TV?” flashed on screens at the venue, while Putin seemingly admitted that over 300,000 Russian soldiers have died or been heavily injured in Ukraine. Queries about inflation or frontline conditions showed the real-life consequences of Putin’s revanchist ambitions.

However, one answer from Russia’s President demonstrated that, no matter what difficulties Russians may be grappling with, their leader was using the event to assert his intransigence. “When will there be peace?” Putin was asked. “There will be peace when we achieve our goals,” he replied. “They haven’t changed. De-Nazification of Ukraine, the demilitarisation of Ukraine.”

No doubt these are words likely to worry any US official fearful of the Ukraine conflict degenerating into further stalemate. Putin, by his account, is certainly not going anywhere.