Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed Tuesday to press on with his military campaign in Ukraine, casting it as a “noble” mission that will end in victory and setting the stage for what’s likely to be the bloodiest fighting so far as regrouping Russian troops mount a concentrated assault on the disputed Donbas region.
In his first public remarks in over a week, Mr. Putin on a visit to a Russian space center in the country’s Far East slammed U.S. and allied economic sanctions on Moscow and said his country will resist all efforts to cut it out of global financial systems. The Russian leader also dismissed the immediate prospects of peace with Ukraine, saying that cease-fire negotiations between the two sides have hit a “dead end.”
Mr. Putin‘s comments came just hours after the U.S., Britain and other NATO nations publicly warned Russia against the use of chemical weapons following unverified reports that Russian forces may have deployed such weapons in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, already the scene of widespread destruction and civilian death. Biden administration officials said Tuesday they could not confirm the use of chemical agents in Mariupol but that investigations are underway.
The use of chemical weapons would seem to indicate that Mr. Putin and his military leaders feel growing pressure to deliver a clear victory after what’s been six weeks of missteps and embarrassing logistical failures by the Russian army. Analysts say the Russian leader also surely wants to see a decisive turn in the fighting by Russia‘s May 9 Victory Day holiday, which marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Whatever his motivations, Mr. Putin left no doubt that he‘s prepared to forge ahead in Ukraine even as Russian casualties mount and Western sanctions cripple his economy. During his visit to the Vostochny Spaceport in the company of Belarusian ally President Alexander Lukashenko, he virtually guaranteed that the mission would succeed.
“I don’t have any doubt at all,” he said. “Its goals are absolutely clear and noble. There is no doubt that the goals will be achieved.”
Mr. Putin also took shots at the West and said its “blitzkrieg” of economic sanctions on Moscow will fall flat. He said the U.S. and NATO effort to cut off Moscow‘s economy from the rest of the world hasn’t worked.
“We are not going to seal ourselves off. In today’s world, it is completely impossible to fully isolate anyone, and totally impossible [to isolate] such an enormous country like Russia. Therefore, we will work with those of our partners who want to cooperate,” he said, according to Russia‘s state-run Tass news agency.
The comments were Mr. Putin‘s first since Russian troops last week abandoned their campaign to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and instead repositioned for an all-out assault on the Donbas. Under a new commander, Russia now is focusing its military might on Luhansk and Donetsk, two territories that the Kremlin recognizes as breakaway independent “republics” but that officially remain a part of Ukraine.
Central to Russia‘s ambitions in eastern Ukraine is the city of Mariupol. Seizing it would allow Moscow to link the Crimean Peninsula, which it forcibly annexed in 2014, with the Donbas, effectively slicing off a significant chunk of eastern Ukraine from the control of the central government in Kyiv.
More than 10,000 civilians have already been killed in Mariupol, the city’s mayor said this week. Ukrainian military units claimed Tuesday that Russian drones dropped chemical weapons on the city, though those reports could not be confirmed.
“We’re in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually has happened,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Tuesday.
Pentagon officials echoed that stance, saying that the incident is under investigation.
Western governments have long feared that Mr. Putin would eventually resort to chemical weapons if the conventional campaign bogged down the way it has. Those fears have grown since Moscow‘s more traditional military tactics fell flat during the battle for Kyiv and other major cities in the north, where motivated Ukrainian forces have put up an unexpectedly tough fight.
And with less than a month until Russian Victory Day celebrations, foreign policy specialists say Mr. Putin is under increasing pressure to secure a victory. But at the same time, his exact goals are becoming murkier, particularly as Russian troops kill scores of civilians and raze entire cities that they claim to want to liberate.
“I think not having something by May 9 would be embarrassing for Putin, but I don’t think that it will be decisive. Whatever the situation becomes, they’ll deal with it, but [May 9] is a factor in their calculations,” Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, said in an interview this week with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“To me, there’s always been this question of, What does [Russia] actually think they’re going to do with this territory now?” he said. “They’ve battered it and pummeled it, they’ve murdered [civilians] within it, whatever assumptions they may have had about this being a Russophile part of Ukraine, it isn’t anymore.”
Mr. Putin, in a joint televised news conference with Mr. Lukashenko, also dismissed accusations by Western governments and human rights groups about war crimes and other atrocities allegedly committed by Russian invading forces against Ukrainian civilians. He branded charges of Russian military abuses in the recently abandoned Kyiv suburb of Bucha as disinformation put out by the Ukrainian government, comparing it to what he said was a staged chemical attack by the West that was blamed on Syrian ally Bashar Assad.
“It’s the same kind of fake in Bucha,” Mr. Putin said.
But there’s no guarantee of Russian success in its Donbas campaign, as Ukrainian forces will surely put up fierce resistance just as they’ve done over the past six weeks.
In another indignity for the Kremlin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on his official Telegram social media account announced that officials had located and arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the country’s biggest opposition party and the most prominent pro-Russian politician in the Ukrainian parliament. Mr. Medvedchuk, who had been in hiding since shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion, is personally close to Mr. Putin, who was godfather to Mr. Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Mr. Zelneskyy posted a picture of an unsmiling Mr. Medvedchuk, handcuffed and clad in a camouflage uniform in making the announcement online.
And top U.S. defense officials are suggesting that the Pentagon is open to providing artillery support to the Ukrainian military, which would enable it to strike Russian forces at much greater distances than with the weapons it currently has, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles.
“We will continue to look at the type of capabilities that the Ukrainians are asking for in terms of how to give them more range and distance,” Ms. Hick told reporters Tuesday. “Are we looking at a wide range of systems in doing that? Yes. Is there a willingness to consider longer-range armaments? Yes.”
Because such a decision would require presidential approval, Ms. Hicks said she wasn’t prepared to announce any new developments on the firepower front.
— Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.