Putin Skips Annual News Conference, Avoiding Possible Questions on War

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It has been an annual ritual of Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia: The president holds a wide-ranging, marathon news conference in December, making a somewhat choreographed show of openness to questioning and demonstrating his command of an array of topics.

But after a series of military setbacks in his war in Ukraine, with Russia’s casualties mounting and its economy faltering under sanctions, Mr. Putin has decided to skip the tradition. Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, did not offer a reason when he told reporters during a daily briefing on Monday that the event would not take place this month; he held out the possibility that it might be rescheduled for the new year.

Mr. Putin first held the year-end news conference in 2001, two years into his presidency. He suspended the practice after becoming prime minister in 2008, but resumed it after returning to the presidency in 2012. The last time he opted out of the event, as president, was in 2005.

Often stretching to four hours or more, the December news conference has been one of the few times during the year when reporters outside the Kremlin pool, including foreign correspondents, get the chance to directly question Mr. Putin — if they are called on. But the Kremlin has also asked reporters ahead of time what they might be inclined to ask Mr. Putin.

The ranks of journalists in Russia who are not subservient to the government are thinner than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this year the government criminalized criticism of the war or the military. Independent Russian news media have all either shut down or moved abroad, and many foreign news outlets have been forced out of the country as well.

Even so, it would have been possible for either a Russian or an international reporter to detail some of the setbacks in Ukraine and to ask Mr. Putin embarrassing questions about them — live on national television.

Mr. Peskov noted that Mr. Putin “regularly speaks to the press, including on foreign visits,” but such exchanges are limited to the pool of reporters regularly assigned to the Kremlin.

Political analysts had various reactions, from suggesting Mr. Putin had no future vision to offer, to the idea that he was finding some of his customs monotonous. One of them, Tatiana Stanovaya, wrote on her Telegram channel that the cancellation was a sign Mr. Putin did not want to engage with what he considered to be minor domestic matters or to answer boring or routine questions.

Mikhail Vinogradov, the political scientist who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, said the move contributed to a general sense of stagnation in the country. Even though a lot is happening, he said, calling off the event captures the feeling that “the situation on pause.”

The invasion that Mr. Putin ordered in February has left Russia increasingly isolated, economically and politically, as Western nations and others have rallied around Ukraine, showing a rare unity of purpose that they demonstrated again with a series of diplomatic moves on Monday.

Leaders of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies held a video meeting and vowed to help rebuild Ukraine, which has suffered widespread physical devastation, as well as continue to arm it. They said a new body to coordinate international economic and reconstruction aid — akin to the one operating for months to organize military aid — could meet for the first time as soon as January. A broader international conference on aid for Ukraine will be held in Paris on Tuesday.

“We firmly support efforts to secure Ukraine’s immediate financial stability and its recovery and reconstruction towards a sustainable, prosperous and democratic future,” the G7 nations said in a joint statement.

Addressing the meeting by video link, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine focused primarily on his country’s need for more weaponry, but also said, “We must be more active with reconstruction.”

European Union foreign ministers held a separate meeting on Monday and agreed to increase a fund reimbursing countries for war matériel provided to Ukraine to 5.5 billion euros (nearly $5.8 billion) from 3.5 billion euros.

Russian bombardment has crippled Ukraine’s energy systems, knocking out power, heat and sometimes water to millions of people at a time, raising fears of a cold, deadly winter.

Military analysts say the increasingly harsh weather could also allow the warring armies to return to more intense frontline combat. The autumn rains reduced dirt roads and fields to bogs, slowing military movement, but the ground is freezing solid again.

The most intense fighting has been in the eastern Donbas region, where Ukraine claimed to have struck a blow against the Wagner Group, the mercenary corps headed by Yevgheny V. Prigozhin, a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, which has operated in concert with the Russian military. Ukrainian officials said that on Sunday, their forces had fired a missile that hit a hotel housing Wagner fighters in Kadiivka, a small city in Luhansk Province.

The exiled head of the Ukrainian regional administration in Luhansk Province, Serhiy Haidai, said in a post on the Telegram app that “many” members of the Wagner force had been killed, which could not be confirmed. There was no statement from Wagner.

Mr. Putin has tried to present life in Russia as business as usual for most people, an image that has become harder to maintain. Thousands of troops have been killed or wounded, which generally goes unmentioned in state media. A mismanaged call-up of about 300,000 military conscripts this fall prompted demonstrations and spurred thousands of men to flee the country; Ukrainian officials predict that another Russian draft is coming soon.

A news conference could expose Mr. Putin to questions about casualties, conscription or specific battlefield setbacks like the strike against Wagner or the retreat from the captured city of Kherson. He continues to insist that the war in Ukraine is going according to plan.

Mr. Putin’s annual news conference usually unrolls in a circuslike atmosphere, with reporters waving signs containing some of the Russian leader’s signature phrases, or wearing costumes from their native regions, in the hope of catching his eye and getting to ask a question. The sessions are a set piece on his calendar, a chance for Mr. Putin to display his command of the facts affecting all aspects of Russian life, and ostensibly, to show him as being receptive to all queries.

Mr. Putin prefers scripted events, however, and in the past week he made several highly staged public appearances aimed at reinforcing his version of reality, at a time when a Russian victory in Ukraine appears as distant as ever. Those televised events presented Mr. Putin as a decisive leader, still fully in charge.

Reporting was contributed by Erika Solomon, Carly Olson, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Yan Zhuang.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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