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Putin said the war in Ukraine will continue in his annual press conference

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The war in Ukraine will go on. That is the message delivered by President Vladimir Putin today in Moscow during his traditional year-end four-hour press conference. As NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, it was the first time Putin has taken extended questions from either journalists or the public since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Putin's performance seemed time to reflect Russia's growing confidence about the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the mere fact that Putin was on stage was proof enough.

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: The Kremlin repeatedly postponed and ultimately canceled last year's event amid setbacks for Russian forces on the battlefield. Yet this year, Putin could point to Kyiv's recent stalled counteroffensive and waning U.S. political support for giving Ukraine what Putin dismissively called free stuff as signs a Russian victory was inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "There will be peace when we achieve our goals," said Putin when asked about the prospects of an end to the conflict. And Putin vowed it would only come following Ukraine's full denazification, a false charge Moscow used to justify its invasion, as well as demilitarization. Either we get an agreement, Putin added, or we solve this by force. Putin claimed that Russia now has more than 600,000 soldiers currently serving in the war zone and said thousands more were volunteering each week to join the fight, numbers that couldn't be independently verified. And he also basked in recent projections Russia's wartime economy would grow 3.5%, despite nearly two years of punishing Western sanctions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Putin also offered his first public comments on the continued detention of Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal's Russia correspondent, who continues to languish in a Moscow jail following his arrest last March on espionage charges. A court today extended Gershkovich's pretrial detention until late January. Gershkovich, The Journal and the U.S. government all insist the charges are groundless. Yet Putin insisted Moscow had not refused a deal during recent prisoner swap negotiations involving Gershkovich and another jailed American, former Marine Paul Whelan. Contradicting White House claims, talks broke down over Russian objections. Rather, Putin acknowledged negotiations with the U.S. were difficult but said Moscow ultimately wanted a deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I hope we find a solution," said Putin, "but the American side must hear us and make an appropriate decision, one that suits the Russian side." Putin's appearance also came less than a week after he announced he'll seek a fifth term in office when Russia holds elections in March, giving the press conference, by default, the air of a campaign event. And questions from the Russian public offer the Kremlin leader a chance to engage in something akin to retail politics as Putin seeks to extend his 24-year hold on power, something even the Kremlin says is all but certain. Thousands of Russians had submitted videos pleading with Putin to intercede on homespun issues, such as a lack of heating, rotting infrastructure and inflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In one video, a pensioner from the southern region of Krasnodar even asked Putin to investigate a recent spike in the price of eggs. Yet families of civilians conscripted to the war in Ukraine, who are now demanding their immediate return home, say their video appeals were not used, just as Putin ignored or perhaps never saw more provocative questions that occasionally flashed on a back wall screen. Why is your reality different from our lived reality? - read one. When will we finally live better? - said another. Indeed, this year's press-conference-meets-call-in-show seemed to adhere to a different script, such as when a young TV reporter from a Far Eastern region famous for Soviet labor camps prefaced his question with praise for Putin's decision to run for reelection - because as long as I can remember, he added, you've always been in power.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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