Putin says he might try to seize nearby territory in Ukraine to prevent cross-border strikes

Published 1:44 pm Tuesday, June 13, 2023

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KYIV, Ukraine  — Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Tuesday that he could order his troops to try to seize more land in Ukraine to protect bordering Russian territory and asserted that Ukrainian forces had suffered “catastrophic” losses in a new counteroffensive.

In some of his most detailed remarks about the war in months, the Russian leader also said he was not contemplating a new troop mobilization, as many Russians have feared, but did not rule it out. And he reiterated Russia’s claim that Ukraine was responsible for blowing up a Dnieper River dam that caused vast flooding on both sides of the front line last week in the country’s south.

Putin’s comments at an open meeting with military journalists and bloggers followed Kyiv’s claims that Ukrainian troops had captured a handful of villages in the early stages of the counteroffensive. The meeting, which lasted more than two hours, came after Russian missile strikes in central Ukraine killed at least 11 people overnight.

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Putin said Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been unsuccessful. He asserted that Ukraine lost 160 tanks and over 360 other armored vehicles, while Russia lost 54 tanks since the new assault began. Those claims could not be immediately verified. Ukrainian officials typically do not comment on losses.

The White House offered no immediate reaction to Putin’s claims.

A U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said Putin’s comments were “not accurate” and cautioned about putting any stock in Russia’s public assessments. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer an internal assessment, did not detail how Putin’s claims were misleading.

Referring to alleged Ukrainian incursions into Russia and shelling of border regions, Putin said he was considering whether “to create on Ukrainian territory a kind of sanitary zone at such a distance from which it would be impossible to get our territory.”

It was not clear whether Russia could afford to risk expanding its gains in Ukraine while trying to repel the evolving counteroffensive in several sectors of the more than 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line.

In recent weeks, Russia’s border areas have come under increasing attack, with the Kremlin blaming Ukrainian forces for incursions of fighters and drone strikes.

Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed Kyiv’s involvement in the attacks but have obliquely welcomed them. Russian volunteer units sympathizing with Ukraine have claimed responsibility for the incursions.

Local leaders in Russia have pleaded with the Kremlin to do more to protect residents, some of whom have been evacuated to safer areas.

Putin acknowledged that Russian authorities should have foreseen and prepared to stop such attacks. Earlier in the war, Russia’s border was better protected because it held more adjacent Ukrainian territory, but Kremlin forces withdrew from much of it last fall under the brunt of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Putin’s long meeting with military bloggers, along with war correspondents from traditional news media, was a dramatic acknowledgement of their importance in conveying the Kremlin’s viewpoint. As with many military conflicts, analysts have said the “information war” shapes public opinion about the fighting, affecting political and military support of both sides.

Speaking with reporters and bloggers — some wearing baseball caps and T-shirts, Putin also said:

— Russia’s defense industry has ratcheted up production of drones and other weapons but needs more and that the West is also struggling to produce more weapons and ammunition.

— Russia might pull out of a U.N.-backed deal to allow grain shipments from Ukraine through a demilitarized Black Sea maritime corridor.

— The United States could stop the war by halting weapons shipments to Ukraine, leaving it too weak to carry on the fight.