As Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference entered its fifth hour earlier today (14 December), the Russian president took one last question. What advice would he give to his earlier self, asked Andrei Kolesnikov, a correspondent for the Russian newspaper Kommersant. “If you had the opportunity, what would you tell the Vladimir Putin of the year 2000 [his first year as president]. Would you warn him about something? Do you regret anything?”
Putin smiled. “I would say that you’re on the right path, comrades.” He paused. “What would I warn him against? Being naive, and overly trusting towards so-called ‘partners’.” He made air quotes around the word to emphasise his point. In other words: no – he has no regrets.
As the audience applauded, Putin looked thoroughly pleased with himself. Last December there was no press conference – or “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin”, his annual call-in show – with the Russian president declining to answer questions following a series of military setbacks in Ukraine and a shambolic troop mobilisation. That he did so this year, at length, alternating between questions from journalists and Russian citizens, is evidence of his growing confidence that the war is beginning to turn in his favour, with support for Kyiv in the West, particularly the US, looking increasingly tenuous.
Sipping champagne with a group of Russian soldiers at the Kremlin on 8 December, when he casually announced that he planned to run again for the presidency in March 2024, Putin held forth on the measures he was taking to increase Russian arms production. “They are running out [of weapons],” he said, gesturing over his shoulder towards an imagined Ukraine. “They don’t have a future, but we have a future.”
That conviction will only have been strengthened by Volodymyr Zelensky’s unhappy visit to Washington days later. Whereas in 2022 the Ukrainian president was greeted with a standing ovation in Congress and a $45bn aid package, this year the US House speaker Mike Johnson declined to be photographed with Zelensky and declared himself unconvinced after their meeting that there was a clear path to victory for Ukraine.
The White House warned earlier in December that it was “out of money and nearly out of time” to supply more weapons to Ukraine unless Congress approves further funding. Speaking alongside Zelensky on 12 December as the latter prepared to return to Kyiv, it was notable that Joe Biden, who has previously vowed to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”, said the US would back Ukraine for “as long as we can”.
This is what Putin was counting on – that he could outlast the West’s unexpected resilience during the early months of the war, and wait for the divisions and domestic political dysfunction that have come to define Washington to reassert themselves once again. Little wonder that he looked so satisfied with himself at his marathon press conference.
Of course, this too is an act – Putin does not have all the answers, and neither can he sustain the war indefinitely. But he appears to believe that he can do so for longer than Ukraine and its Western partners, and in the end that is what counts. The Russian president clearly believes he is on the right path after all.
[See also: Putin still wants to win]