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Putin says there will be no peace in Ukraine until goals are achieved, while offering rare details

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Putin says there will be no peace in Ukraine until goals are achieved, while offering rare details

MOSCOW (AP) — Emboldened by battlefield gains and flagging Western support for Ukraine, a relaxed and confident President Vladimir Putin said Thursday there would be no peace until Russia achieves its goals, which he says remain unchanged after nearly two years of fighting.

It was Putin’s first formal news conference that Western media were allowed to attend since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022. The highly choreographed session, which lasted over four hours and included questions from ordinary Russians about things like the price of eggs and leaky gymnasium roofs, was more about spectacle than scrutiny.

But while using the show as an opportunity to reinforce his authority ahead of an election in March that he is all but certain to win, Putin also gave a few rare details on what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

He said that a steady influx of volunteers means there is no need for a second wave of mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine — a move that was deeply unpopular. He said there are some 617,000 Russian soldiers there, including around 244,000 troops who were mobilized a year ago to fight alongside professional forces.

“There will be peace when we will achieve our goals,” Putin said, repeating a frequent Kremlin line. “Victory will be ours.”

Putin, who has held power for nearly 24 years and announced last week he is running for reelection, was greeted with applause as he arrived in the hall in central Moscow. He didn’t hold his traditional news conference last year amid setbacks in Ukraine.

But with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleading for more U.S aid amid a stalling counteroffensive and fracturing Western support, he decided to face reporters once more — even though only two Western journalists were called on for questions.

Putin highlighted Russia’s successes in Ukraine and the flagging support by Kyiv’s allies.

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“Ukraine today produces nearly nothing, they are trying to preserve something but they don’t produce practically anything themselves and bring everything in for free,” he said. “But the freebies may end at some point and apparently it’s coming to an end little by little.”

Putin noted “an improvement in the position of our troops all along” the front line.

“The enemy has declared a big counteroffensive, but he hasn’t achieved anything anywhere,” he added.

The session dealt mostly with Ukraine and domestic issues, but a few international topics were addressed:

— Putin said he wanted to reach a deal with Washington to free U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich and U.S. businessman Paul Whelan, both held in Russia on espionage-related charges. “We’re not refusing to return them,” Putin said but added an agreement that satisfies Moscow was “not easy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. (Aleksander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. (Aleksander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

 

— He deplored the death of thousands of civilians in Gaza amid the Israeli-Hamas war, citing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called it a “graveyard for children.” He urged greater humanitarian aid, adding that Russia proposed setting up a field hospital in Gaza near the border with Egypt but Israel responded it would be unsafe.

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— Asked what he would have told himself from today’s perspective when he started his first term in 2000, Putin said he would have warned against “naivety and excessive trustfulness regarding our so-called partners” in the West.

The 71-year-old leader appeared calm and relaxed during the questions, although he frequently cleared his throat, blaming the air conditioning.

Ordinary citizens submitted questions alongside those from journalists, and Russian media said at least 2 million were sent in advance, giving him a chance to appear personally involved in resolving their problems. That’s especially vital for Putin ahead of the March 17 election.

Irina Akopova of the southern Krasnodar region, who addressed Putin as “my favorite president,” complained about the rising price of eggs. He apologized to her and blamed “a glitch in the work of the government” for not increasing imports quickly enough.

Children in Russian-annexed Crimea asked him about a leaking roof and mold in their sports hall.

Immediately after the show, Russia’s main criminal investigation agency declared it had launched inquiries into alleged wrongdoing by local authorities in regions whose residents asked Putin to resolve their problems.

That included a disruption in water supplies to the village of Akishevo in western Russia, the lack of transport link to the village of Serebryanskoye in the southwestern Volgograd region, and in the Crimean village where the children complained about the leaking roof.

Although he has taken some questions from reporters at smaller events and foreign trips, Putin’s last big news conference was in 2021 as the U.S warned that Russia was about to move into Ukraine. He delayed an annual state-of-the-nation address until February 2023.

Since then, relations with the West have plunged to new lows amid the conflict in Ukraine.

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He claimed Ukraine’s attempt to create a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River had fizzled and Kyiv suffered heavy losses, saying its government was sacrificing its troops in order to show some success to its Western sponsors as it seeks more aid, a tactic he called “stupid and irresponsible.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller responded by saying that Putin “still wishes to conquer Ukraine” but the belief that Russia would outlast the West or the United States was wrong.

Putin’s news conference also highlighted concerns some Russians have about another wave of mobilization.

“There is no need” for mobilization now, Putin said, because 1,500 men are recruited as volunteers every day. As of Wednesday, 486,000 soldiers have signed contracts with the military, he said.

His remarks about another mobilization were met with skepticism by some independent Russian media, which noted he had promised not to draft reservists for Ukraine and then reversed course and ordered a “partial” call-up. The move, which he announced in September 2022, prompted thousands of Russians to flee the country.

He reiterated that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine — “de-Nazification, de-militarization and a neutral status” of Ukraine — remain unchanged. He had spelled out those loosely defined objectives the day he sent in troops February 2022.

The claim of “de-Nazification” refers to Russia’s false assertions that Ukraine’s government is heavily influenced by radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups — an allegation derided by Kyiv and the West.

He reaffirmed his claim that much of today’s Ukraine, including the Black Sea port of Odesa and other coastal areas, historically belonged to Russia and were given away by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

While Moscow had accepted the new reality after the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Putin said he was forced to respond to what he described as an attempt by the West to turn Ukraine into a tool to challenge and threaten Russia.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
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“Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and what’s going on now is a huge tragedy, a civil war between brothers who have found themselves on the opposite sides,” he added.

Some journalists who lined up for the news conference in freezing temperatures for hours to enter the hall wore traditional dress, including elaborate hats, to catch his eye. Many held identifying placards.

Although the event is tightly controlled, some online questions that Putin ignored appeared on screens in the hall.

“Mr. President, when will the real Russia be the same as the one on TV?” one text message said, apparently referring to the Kremlin’s control over the media that portrays Putin positively and glosses over the country’s problems.

Another read: “I’d like to know, when will our president pay attention to his own country? We’ve got no education, no health care. The abyss lies ahead.”

Putin was asked by an artificial intelligence version of himself, speaking with his face and voice, on whether he uses body doubles — a subject of intense speculation by some Kremlin watchers. Putin brushed off the suggestion.

“Only one person should look like myself and talk in my voice — that person is going to be me,” he said, deadpanning: “By the way, this is my first double.”

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This story has been updated to correct that 244,000 is the number of troops called up to fight and are in Ukraine, not the total number there.

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___

Associated Press writers Emma Burrows in London and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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