Putin Concedes Military Failings, but Insists Russia Will Fight On

After months of blistering assessments from inside and outside Russia that his war effort in Ukraine lacked even the basic resources necessary to prevail, President Vladimir V. Putin delivered his own verdict on that criticism on Wednesday: It’s valid.

In an unusual acknowledgment of Russia’s shortcomings in a speech at the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, the Russian leader ticked off a list of areas his military must improve on. He declared that drones must be able to communicate targeting information through encrypted channels “in real time.” He said the military needed to “improve the command and control system” and its ability to strike back at enemy artillery.

And he nodded to the widespread reports of soldiers’ being sent to the front without basic equipment, instructing officers to pay attention to “medical kits, food, dry rations, uniforms, footwear, protective helmets and bulletproof vests.”

But far from an admission of defeat, Mr. Putin’s reference to his army’s woes reflected his defiant message on a day when Ukraine’s president put on a show of unity with the United States: Russia will keep fighting.

“We have no limits in terms of financing,” Mr. Putin said, insisting that Russia would eventually prevail in Ukraine. “The country and the government are providing everything that the army asks for — everything.”

Even as Ukraine’s resistance captured the global spotlight with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to Washington, Mr. Putin staged a showy gathering of his own, addressing members of Parliament and even Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church for a speech at an annual meeting of the military’s top brass.

Russian conscripts during military training in Rostov-on-Don in October. Mr. Putin directed the military ministry to provide soldiers with “the highest level” of body armor, uniforms, food, medical kits and shoes.Credit…Arkady Budnitsky/EPA, via Shutterstock

Comparing the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine to “the heroes” who warded off Napoleon’s invading army in 1812 and defeated Hitler in 1945, Mr. Putin implied that his war was just as existential — never mind that it was Moscow now doing the invading. He also sought to project an image of being in control of the war effort and attentive to the needs of the common soldier, at one point urging the gathered military brass to take “criticism into account.”

Just as important to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin sought to project an air of determination to the West: the notion that no matter how much arms support Ukraine gets, and despite the Russian military’s problems, the Kremlin remained determined to triumph in the end.

At the same time, Russian officials are reminding the West they are prepared to make a deal to end the war — on their terms.

The State of the War

  • Zelensky in Washington: President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine will visit Washington today to meet with President Biden and address Congress. The visit will be the first time Mr. Zelensky has left Ukraine since Russia invaded.
  • U.S. Spending Bill: The giant annual spending package contains more than $44 billion in aid for Ukraine, renewing the U.S. commitment to the country’s defense as the war grinds toward a second year.
  • A Botched Invasion: Secret battle plans, intercepts and interviews with soldiers and Kremlin confidants offer new insight into the stunning failures of Russia’s military in Ukraine.
  • A New Russian Offensive? A top adviser to Mr.Zelensky said Ukraine is bracing for the possibility that Russia will sharply escalate the war in a winter offensive that could include mass infantry attacks.

“Russia is always open to holding constructive peace talks,” Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, said after Mr. Putin spoke.

Mr. Shoigu promised to carry out changes in the military’s structure, set up new units and increase its target size by more than 300,000 service members. State television also showed Mr. Shoigu giving Mr. Putin a tour of modern Russian military equipment, including surveillance drones, night vision equipment and a medical tent.

But while the message seemed to be that Russia could correct mistakes on the fly and regain momentum in the war, experts cast doubt on whether this was realistic. The struggling Russian economy, weighed down by Western sanctions, will impose its own limits on how much the Kremlin can spend to improve its military.

Ukrainian soldiers in Izium looking to salvage abandoned Russian tanks.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

“They’re trying to deal with a sharp deficit in manpower and equipment and hurriedly put together something that’s falling apart,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst who is a visiting scholar at Tufts University. “The goal of all these attempts is to improve the negotiating position — probably not anything more.”

It was not known whether Wednesday’s event was purposely scheduled as counterprogramming to Mr. Zelensky’s high-profile visit to Washington, but it played that role for a Kremlin fiercely attentive to creating an aura of determination around Mr. Putin. Earlier in the day, the Kremlin stuck to its line that any further Western deliveries of weapons to Ukraine would only prolong the war.

“All this, of course, leads to an aggravation of the conflict,” the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said, referring to new American arms deliveries, “and, in fact, does not bode well for Ukraine.”

In another bit of countermessaging, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former Russian president and the head of the governing United Russia party, met on Wednesday in Beijing with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, as Chinese and Russian naval ships began weeklong joint exercises in the East China Sea.

Mr. Xi’s rare in-person meeting with a foreign official served as a reminder that Russia retained the backingof China, its most important international partner, even though Beijing had avoided declaring full-throated support for Russia’s invasion. Mr. Xi told Mr. Medvedev that relations between the two countries had “stood the test of international changes” and that their partnership was a “long-term strategic choice made by both sides,” according to the state broadcaster, China Central Television.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, head of the governing United Russia party, met with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing on Wednesday.Credit…Yekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik, via Reuters

That kind of alliance is important for Mr. Putin as he squares off against the West. In follow-up remarks after his speech on Wednesday, he reprised his frequent contention that the goal of Russia’s adversaries was the “disintegration and weakening of Russia” and had been “for centuries — there’s nothing new here.” A war over Ukraine’s pro-Western turn, he claimed, was bound to break out sooner or later.

“Of course, military operations are always associated with tragedy and loss of life,” Mr. Putin said. “But since it’s inevitable, better today than tomorrow.”

He claimed that Russia currently had an edge over the West in its nuclear forces, including its new hypersonic missiles, that helped create “a certain margin of safety.” While he did not repeat the more overt threats he made in September that he could use nuclear weapons, the comment was a reminder that Mr. Putin saw the Ukraine war as part of a large-scale struggle with the West in which his nuclear arsenal provides his ultimate backing.

After Mr. Putin spoke, Mr. Shoigu delivered a speech in which he detailed an expansion of the Russian military by more than 300,000 service members to a target size of 1.5 million. It was not immediately clear whether that expansion was meant to include the draft of about 300,000 soldiers this fall, but it appeared to be part of a push to further militarize Russian society.

Mr. Shoigu said that the age range for men who could be conscripted for their mandatory year of military service should be shifted to 21 to 30 from the current range, 18 to 27 — a measure that could make it harder for Russians to use their university studies to get deferments.

Mr. Shoigu also described planned structural changes, in particular to the Western Military District — an organizational entity whose troops are based across much of western Russia and, analysts say, performed particularly poorly in Ukraine.

“It is an admission that the army turned out to be too small and that the elite Western Military District turned out to be ineffective,” said Dmitri Kuznets, a military analyst for the independent Russian-language news outlet Meduza.

Victoria Kim and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

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