Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested he could order his troops to try to seize more land in Ukraine to protect Russian territory on the border, while asserting Ukrainian forces have suffered “catastrophic” losses in a new counteroffensive.
The Russian leader made some of his most detailed remarks in months on Tuesday about the war in an open meeting with military journalists and bloggers, just as Ukrainian officials claim they have captured a handful of villages in the early stages of its counterstrike.
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He asserted Ukraine lost 160 tanks and more than 360 other armoured vehicles in recent days of heavy fighting, while Russia only lost 54 tanks since Kyiv began the new assault. Those claims could not be immediately verified.
Referring to Ukrainian incursions and shelling of Russia’s Belgorod and other border regions, Putin said his military would take moves to stop such attacks, and if Kyiv persists, “We will have to consider creating a sanitary zone in Ukraine to prevent it from striking our territory.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s border areas have come under increasing attack, with the Kremlin blaming Ukrainian forces for raids and drone attacks. Local leaders in Russia have pleaded with the Kremlin to do more to protect their residents, some of whom have been evacuated to safer areas.
‘Depends on what we want’
Putin said there is no need for an additional mobilisation of men to fight in Ukraine for now, but said any further troop call-ups would depend on what Russia wanted to achieve there. “There is no such need today.”
Last year, some 300,000 reservists were called up in what the Russian president cast as a “partial mobilisation”.
“Some public figures say we need to get one million or two million,” Putin said. “It depends on what we want.”
Discussing Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, which Russian troops failed to take in the early stages of the war, Putin asked, “Should we return there? Why am I asking such a rhetorical question? It is clear there is simply no answer to this – I can only answer it myself.”
Putin said there was also no need to follow Ukraine’s example and declare martial law. “There is no reason to introduce some kind of special regime or martial law in the country.”
Ukraine’s large-scale counteroffensive began on June 4 and has not been successful in any area, Putin said. He said Ukraine was suffering massive losses and Kyiv’s casualties were 10 times greater than Moscow’s.
His assessment came hours after Russia claimed it captured Western armoured vehicles from Kyiv’s forces on the battlefield and following deadly Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy’s hometown.
Zelenskyy on Tuesday hailed advances by Ukraine’s troops near the long-besieged city of Bakhmut in the east and on the war’s southern front.
“Thanks to everyone who is now fighting, who protects and advances our positions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “For example, the Bakhmut sector … there is forward movement in various areas.”
He also praised units on the southern front, saying in “conditions of aviation and artillery superiority of the occupiers, there is movement forward. Thank you soldiers! Thank you for every step and every metre freed from Russian evil.”
The head of Ukraine’s ground troops, Oleksandr Syrskyi, wrote on Telegram that Russian forces are “losing positions on the flanks”.
It was not possible to independently verify the assertions.
‘Not enough’ ammunition, drones
The Russian leader declined to say whether Moscow would launch a new offensive in Ukraine in response to Kyiv’s own counteroffensive, saying its plans would depend on military potential.
Speaking about weaponry, Putin said the quality of Russian arms was improving, but the country lacked high-precision ammunition and drones.
“During the course of the special military operation, it became clear that many things were lacking,” Putin said. “High-precision ammunition, communications equipment, drones … We have them but, unfortunately, there is not enough.”
Putin said Russia increased its production of key weapons by 2.7 times over the past year, and he also accused the West of pumping weapons into Ukraine.
He added Russia was open to peace talks but the only way to stop the conflict was for Western countries to end their arms supplies to Kyiv.
The comments came shortly before the US announced a new $325m military aid package for Ukraine that will include munitions for air defence systems, ammunition and vehicles.
The Russian leader also said he backed a defence ministry order for private military companies to sign contracts with it before July 1, something the high-profile Wagner Group has refused to do.
Earlier on Tuesday, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was not sure if his men would continue to fight in Ukraine amid the bitter standoff with the defence ministry with which he has long been at loggerheads.
Meanwhile, Russia was considering exiting the landmark Black Sea grain deal that has allowed grain from Ukraine to reach the global market, Putin said, adding that Moscow had been “cheated” over the implementation of the parts of the accord that concerned its own exports.
“We are now thinking about whether to leave the grain deal,” Putin said.
Putin said the deal was intended to help “friendly” countries in Africa and Latin America, but that Europe was the largest importer of Ukrainian grain and this was providing a key source of foreign currency to Kyiv.
He accused Kyiv of using sea corridors that are meant to provide safe passage for ships carrying grain “to launch maritime drones”.
Putin said he would discuss the future of the grain deal with some African leaders who were expected to visit Russia, adding that Moscow was ready to supply grain for free to the world’s poorest countries.
The deal was brokered last July by the United Nations and Turkey and allows for the safe export of grain from several Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.
The West has not imposed sanctions on Russian grain and other food exports but they have been hampered by other restrictions on insurance and other areas.