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What did Putin really say in his marathon press conference?

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Since the end of World War II, the United States has not excelled in fully understanding the conditions that led to ordering American forces into battle. Nor was the U.S. prescient in predicting that the Soviet Union would implode. Are we making a similar error today by not understanding Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin?

Yes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conduct of is special military operation have been despicable. War crimes have been committed. And Ukrainian non-combatants have been targets of terror, missile and bombing campaigns.

The wisdom of Sun Tzu needs to be repeated: Know your enemy. So, did Putin reveal anything to arouse our interest during his four-hour press conference last Thursday? First, Russian citizens submitted more than 2 million questions using Putin’s website.

Second, regarding the special military operation in Ukraine, Putin was far more positive and confident about progress than last year, when he did not hold a presser, or last summer, when he was still reeling from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march to Moscow.

Putin recited statistics that must be fact-checked. After restating the reasons for deploying the army to de-nazify and de-militarize Ukraine, Putin claimed Russia had destroyed 747 Ukrainian tanks and 2,300 armored vehicles. He also stated that some 244,000 Russians were in the combat region and later raised that figure to 671,000. About recruiting, the original target of 400,000 was exceeded by 86,000. 

Beyond the war in Ukraine, many of the questions and comments were surprisingly blunt criticisms covering a wide range of domestic aspects of Russian life. Reading the transcript, Putin’s comprehensive knowledge of so much material and use of statistical data, notably for the economy, could lead to the conclusion that the presser was scripted.  

Putin underscored the economy’s strength, with 2023 GDP growth at 3.5 percent; unemployment at 2.9 percent ; government debt reduction from $46 billion to $32 billion; and private debt from $337 billion to $297 billion. He acknowledged that inflation was running too high, at 7.5 percent, but countered that the government was dealing with that.  

But there’s also reason to think the press conference was not scripted. Several times, Putin admitted being unaware of specific issues, promising to look into each to correct or rectify the problems. Putin also spent a serious amount of time focusing on sovereignty that the Western media surprisingly did not report.

Putin explained that “Without sovereignty Russia would cease to exist, at least in the form it exists today.” That was a curious contradiction, because how could any state exist without sovereignty? 

Putin argued that “…our main objective is to strengthen sovereignty. But it is a broad concept (in which). …Strengthening sovereignty on the international stage involves enhancing our defense capability and security on the external contour. It also includes strengthening social sovereignty which means providing safeguards for the rights and freedoms of our citizens as well as developing our political and parliamentary systems.  … Lastly it includes economic security and sovereignty as well as technical sovereignty.”

But why that focus? To Putin, Russia is sovereign if he can control both internal and external affairs. Little doubt was raised about who is fully in charge in Russia after Prigozhin’s death. Putin was also signaling to Russians that if they vote for him for president next year, this is how Russia will improve its influence, strength, security and economy.  

What about the United States? Is it possible Putin could have been sending a message to President Biden? Putin’s emphasis on sovereignty could mean he believes Russia is back and now, after setbacks, comparable to the U.S. And in one of his answers, Putin pointedly said Russia was open to talks on releasing two Americans held in Russian prisons. 

The war in Ukraine may provide an answer. U.S. intelligence estimated that Russia has taken at least 315,000 casualties of the initial 360,000 invading force and lost about two-thirds of its equipment. If correct, those levels are stunning. 

Suppose U.S. intelligence is correct that Putin now understands that he cannot win in Ukraine. And deadlock, even if he is hoping for a Trump victory in 2024, is not a viable solution. Does this suggest Putin may be seeking talks? Or if they are ongoing, is he prepared for serious negotiations on the Ukraine war in the near term?

Whether or not Putin’s presser opened the door, the idea is worth considering. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is a senior advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD:  How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached on X @harlankullman.

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