President Vladimir Putin has ditched his annual marathon news conference following a series of battlefield setbacks in Ukraine – a tacit acknowledgment that the Russian leader’s war has gone badly wrong.
Putin typically uses the year-end ritual to polish his image, answering a wide range of questions on domestic and foreign policy to demonstrate his grip on details and give the semblance of openness even though the event is tightly stage-managed.
But this year, with his troops on the back foot in Ukraine, it could be impossible to avoid uncomfortable questions about the Russian military’s blunders even at a highly choreographed event.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on Monday that Putin would not hold the news conference this month, without explaining why.
“Although questions are almost certainly usually vetted in advance, the cancellation is likely due to increasing concerns about the prevalence of anti-war feeling in Russia,” the UK’s Ministry of Defence said.
“Kremlin officials are almost certainly extremely sensitive about the possibility that any event attended by Putin could be hijacked by unsanctioned discussion about the ‘special military operation’,” it said, using Moscow’s term for the war.
Some of his previous performances lasted for more than four and a half hours, during which he has sometimes faced some pointed questions, but used them to mock the West or denigrate his domestic opponents.
Putin also has cancelled another annual fixture this year, a televised call-in show in which he takes questions from the public to nurture his father-of-the-nation image.
And he has so far failed to deliver the annual televised state-of-the-nation address to parliament, a constitutional obligation. No date has been set for Putin’s address.
But it has faced an increasingly vocal criticism from Russian hardliners, who have denounced the president as weak and indecisive and called for ramping up strikes on Ukraine.
Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, claiming Moscow was forced to “demilitarise” the country in the face of Nato’s refusal to offer Russia guarantees that Ukraine would not be invited to join the alliance.
Ukraine and much of the world denounced the Russian attack on its neighbour as an unprovoked act of aggression.
Putin and his officials hoped to rout the Ukrainian military in a few days, but a fierce Ukrainian resistance, bolstered by Western weapons, quickly derailed those plans.
In September, Ukraine won back large swaths of land in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, and last month it reclaimed control of the strategic southern port city of Kherson.
A mobilisation of 300,000 reservists that Putin ordered in September so far has failed to reverse battlefield fortunes for Russia.
The mobilisation order has prompted hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee abroad to avoid recruitment, and those who have been called up reported glaring shortages of key equipment and supplies.
In a rare acknowledgement last week that the war in Ukraine is taking longer than he anticipated, Putin acknowledged that wrapping up the campaign could be a “lengthy process”.
At the same time, he continued to claim that it was going according to plan and would achieve its goals.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political expert, noted that Putin’s decision to ditch the news conference and his failure so far to deliver the state-of-the-nation address reflected his hesitancy about the future course of action.
“Shall we forge ahead and defeat the enemy?” he wrote, reflecting hardliners’ calls for ramping up missile strikes on Ukraine.
“Or on the contrary, shall we prepare for a difficult but necessary compromise?”