Russian President Vladimir Putin said the situation in four areas of Ukraine that Moscow has unilaterally declared part of Russia was proving ‘extremely difficult’, one of his clearest public admissions yet that his invasion is not going to plan.
He has also called for an increase in surveillance in his comments to mark Security Services Day in Russia on Tuesday.
They followed a visit to close ally Belarus that fuelled fears, dismissed by the Kremlin, that the country could help Russia open a new invasion front against Ukraine.
Putin ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to step up surveillance of Russian society and the country’s borders to combat the ’emergence of new threats’ from abroad and traitors at home.
Western countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and the rouble slumped to an over seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday after the European Union agreed to cap prices of gas, a major Russian export.
In a rare admission of the invasion of Ukraine not going smoothly, Putin cautioned about the difficult situation in regions of Ukraine that Moscow moved to annex in September and ordered the FSB to ensure the ‘safety’ of people living there.’
The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult,’ Putin said in a video address to security workers translated by Reuters.
In September, Putin sought to regain the initiative after a series of battlefield defeats by declaring that four partially occupied regions in Ukraine’s east and south had joined Russia. Kyiv and its Western allies said the move was illegal.
In October, Russian forces drew back in one of the regions – Kherson – and dug in elsewhere. They have failed to gain ground and earlier this month, Putin said the war could be a ‘long process’.
On Monday, Putin made his first visit to Belarus since 2019, where he and his counterpart extolled ever-closer ties at a news conference late in the evening but hardly mentioned Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported that Belarus had reached an understanding with Moscow on the restructuring of its debt and had agreed on a fixed price for Russian gas for three years.
Kyiv, meanwhile, was seeking more weapons from the West after weeks of attacks on energy facilities which have knocked out both power and water supplies amid freezing temperatures.
Weapons, shells, new defence capabilities … everything that will give us the ability to speed up the end to this war,’ President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his evening address.
The level of the military threat is increasing, but we are taking adequate measures,’ he was quoted as saying by the defence ministry on Telegram.
The Armed Forces’ General Staff provides for the expansion of units in the event of a significant increase in the other side’s forces.’
The Kremlin on Monday dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role.
The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were ‘groundless’ and ‘stupid’.
Both Putin and Lukashenko were also at pains to dismiss the idea of Russia annexing or absorbing Belarus.
‘Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,’ Putin said.
Asked about this comment, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said it should be treated as the ‘height of irony’, given it was ‘coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment, right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next-door neighbour.
The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War Two, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.