Letter From the Editors

This time last year, the mainstream Russian press was discussing Vladimir Putin’s virtual report to one of his executive councils, during which he uttered the then-taboo word “war” (a “war of sanctions,” but still), while alternative outlets buzzed with speculation as to why he had postponed the December rituals of the Direct Line and year-end press conference. Was he dying? Was he ashamed to face the public after reversals at the front? Were his subordinates plotting a coup?

No matter what the Russian president’s thought process was at that point in the war in Ukraine, this year he made a point of resuming his December staples as a way of saying that he is alive, winning and fully secure in his power. And he has every expectation of continuing to be so through 2024. In a fitting and memorable coda to the appearance, Kommersant’s Andrei Kolesnikov asked Putin what advice he would give to his younger self. The president answered with relish, “You’re on the right track, comrades!” He regrets nothing.

However, Putin was oddly silent on several pressing issues that analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says would undermine the ability of the people to share their president’s optimism. “There were no wives of the mobilized men in the Direct Line audience,” he noted. “Not a single one. Their complaints, their demands to bring their husbands back home, would undermine this show of confidence and readiness for sacrifice for the sake of Russia’s great power status and great historic mission – all those fairy tales that Russian people love to hear.”

Oreshkin remarked in a similar vein on Putin’s neglecting to mention his upcoming presidential bid during the event: “Numerous leaks suggested that Putin wanted the military to take Avdeyevka in time for Direct Line. But the military failed to take it. . . . So, when there are some military victories to brag about, that’s when the Kremlin will push forward with the election campaign.” That would also explain why, as Nezavisimaya gazeta reports, there has been little media promotion of the campaign to gather signatures for Putin’s reelection.

Having postponed his election, Ukrainian President Zelensky needn’t worry about signatures, but he also held a year-end presser, Meduza reports. His tone was markedly different from Putin’s. For example, he said that “I’m confident that the US won’t betray us, and that what we agreed to with the US will be completely fulfilled.” He remarked that Germany would support Ukraine “to the end or not, we’ll see.”

The contrast, illustrating an almost complete reversal of positions from a year earlier, could be seen in the two leaders’ responses to the question of when the war would end.

Putin: “Peace will come when we achieve our goals – they haven’t changed.”

Zelensky: “I think no one knows the answer, even our commanders or Western partners. They don’t know. These are just thoughts, and thoughts often differ from reality.”

Perhaps a measured tone should convince us more than brash confidence. All the more so because Putin’s stated goals – “demilitarization and denazification” – are as nebulous as they were almost two years ago. And Oreshkin reminds us that “Last year, his goals kept changing all the time. First . . . the real objective of the ‘special operation’ was to secure a land bridge to the Crimea and Transnistria. Then they said that the real goal was to secure the administrative borders of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s goals are being shaped by the availability of foreign firepower as much as by facts on the ground. As partisan gridlock paralyzes Washington, Republic’s Sergei Mikhailov writes that Kiev’s European allies have reached “the realization that support for Ukraine cannot stop but needs rethinking.” What response will Europe think up? Perhaps Mikhailov phrases it best, in his measured way: “History knows of many abrupt turns in military campaigns, and this experience teaches [us] that it is better to refrain from making hasty forecasts.”