As his war in Ukraine dragged into its 10th month, President Vladimir V. Putin warned Russians on Wednesday that the battle would be protracted, but tried to allay the worst fears of an increasingly war-weary population.
Mr. Putin’s concession that the war “might be a long process” was a marked departure from the Kremlin’s blitzkrieg rhetoric at the start of the invasion in February. But for now, he said, the Kremlin will not call up more combat troops to serve in what his government still insists on describing as a “special military operation.”
“In these conditions, the talk about some additional mobilization efforts makes no sense,” the Russian leader said. “There is no need for this for the state and for the Defense Ministry.”
Mr. Putin’s comments, made to the Kremlin’s human rights council — a group of loyal journalists, activists and public figures, the name notwithstanding — came after three drone strikes by Ukrainian forces on targets in Russian territory signaled a bolder phase of Ukrainian attacks enabled by longer-range weapons.
Those attacks, combined with the conscription of as many as 300,000 Russians to join the fighting ranks, have brought the reality of war closer to a largely apathetic Russian population.
“The people are getting tired, and Putin knows that a protracted war cannot be popular,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a political scientist who once wrote speeches for Mr. Putin but has broken with him. “He does not want a second wave of mobilization, and is trying to show that he has enough men to last through the winter.”
Mr. Gallyamov said the Kremlin was betting that winter conditions would reduce the intensity of the fighting and that the conflict would settle into a war of attrition favoring Russia, with the reduction of Russian energy deliveries to Europe gradually eroding Western support to Ukraine.
Russia has been regularly hitting civilian targets across Ukraine with missiles, drones and shells. One artillery barrage killed six civilians on Wednesday and wounded five others in the eastern town of Kurakhove, Ukrainian authorities said.
At the council meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Putin said that there has been no choice for Russia but to intervene militarily in Ukraine because of what he called Western-backed aggression against ethnic Russians there. The Kremlin has often made that unsubstantiated claim to justify the war.
The State of the War
- Russia’s Long War: As his war in Ukraine drags on, President Vladimir V. Putin warned Russians that the battle would be protracted, but tried to allay the worst fears of an increasingly war-weary population.
- Striking Deep in Russia: In its most brazen attacks into Russian territory, Ukraine has been using drones to strike military bases inside Russia, showing an ability to take the war beyond its borders.
- Weaponizing Winter: Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have left millions without power, heat or water as the snow begins to fall. The Daily looks at what life is like in Ukraine as winter sets in.
- Russian Oil Price Cap: The E.U. agreed on a $60-a-barrel limit for Russian oil, the latest effort by Western allies to try to deprive Moscow of revenue to finance its war in Ukraine. Here’s how it will work.
How Russia can rise to the task of waging a protracted war without drafting more men to fight it was unclear, though the Kremlin says many of the soldiers conscripted in September have yet to see a battlefield.
Mr. Putin said that half of the 300,000 civilians conscripted to fight in Ukraine as part of the call-up were still training outside combat zones. About 77,000 conscripts are engaged in fighting in Ukraine, he said, and others are serving in territorial defense units or aiding training efforts.
Mr. Putin ordered the “partial mobilization” of troops after a series of setbacks on the battlefield, a move Western analysts said made clear that Russia had faced a disastrous loss of professional soldiers. The decision shook Russian society. Thousands of Russians rushed to leave the country, some paying exorbitant prices for flights to whatever destinations they could manage to get tickets to.
Chaos and inefficiency hampered the mobilization. Many conscripts have reported that little training was provided and that whole units were left without commanders. Some complained that they had to buy their own equipment and uniforms.
In the face of criticism, Mr. Putin announced the end of the call-up in October, although he did not issue an official order to stop it. That has prompted fears that the Kremlin might announce another wave at any moment.
On Wednesday, Mr. Putin appeared to acknowledge that the war was taking much longer than the Kremlin had expected. But he said Russia had become bigger by annexing Ukrainian territory. In September, in a moved condemned as illegal by much of the world, the Kremlin declared four Ukrainian provinces part of Russia.
“This is a significant result,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin also played down the possibility of using nuclear weapons, despite his veiled threat in the past that they were an option in Ukraine. He said that even though the threat of a nuclear war “is growing,” Russia “is not crazy,” and that the Kremlin was not going to “brandish these nuclear weapons like a razor.”
Mr. Putin’s speech came on the same day the United Nations released a report detailing extrajudicial killings by the Russian military during the first month of the war that it described as likely war crimes. It offered a harrowing, fine-grained examination of the dangers civilians faced in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
The report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 441 killings of civilians in areas along the Russian attack route toward the capital, Kyiv. Of these, 28 were children. U.N. investigators said the total number of killings in the area was “likely considerably higher.”
The report arose from one of several international investigations into the macabre scenes discovered in the wake of the Russian Army’s retreat from the Kyiv area.
“There are strong indications that the summary executions documented in the report constitute the war crime of willful killing,” the U.N. human rights commissioner, Volker Türk, said in a statement. “The victims and survivors of these violations have a right to truth, justice and reparation — accountability must be ensured as soon as possible.”
The Ukrainian government has staunchly rejected suggestions from some European and American politicians that it try to negotiate a settlement as long as Ukrainian territory remains under occupation, pointing to the rights abuses discovered in areas reclaimed from Russia. The Ukrainian authorities discovered more than 1,000 bodies after the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv.
The U.N. investigators focused on proven cases of summary execution or the targeting of individual civilians by Russian soldiers, excluding victims of artillery shelling. The report focused narrowly on killings by the Russian Army in towns and villages north of Kyiv occupied from Feb. 24 to April 6.
“Soon after the retreat of Russian troops from various town and villages,” the report said, “local residents, authorities and law enforcement began to recover bodies of dead civilians in considerable numbers.” The bodies were found on streets, in fields, in parks, in forested areas, in houses, in burned vehicles on highways, in basements and pits and improvised graves, it said.
War crimes prosecutions are likely to be years away, and the Russian government has not cooperated, the U.N. report noted. It said Moscow had shown “no indications” that it intended to investigate or prosecute its soldiers for misdeeds.
The investigators studied a selection of 100 cases in greater detail, and found that 57 were summary executions. In other instances, civilians were shot from a distance as they drove in cars, rode bicycles or walked, sometimes while trying to flee the combat zone, the report said.
“In most cases, victims of killings in places of detention were found with their hands cuffed or bound by duct tape, and with injuries suggesting torture or other ill-treatment before being killed,” the report said. One body had signs consistent with sexual violence, it said.
The investigators relied on site visits, interviews with relatives, records of forensic examinations, and photographs and audio recordings, the report said.
The report documented certain killings in grim detail. One woman hid in an apartment while gunshots were heard on the street, emerging to find her husband and another man shot dead. “The wife buried both victims in the yard the same day,” the report noted.
A Russian armored column passing through a town opened fire on three teenage boys on the roadside, decapitating one with heavy-caliber fire and fatally wounding the others, the report said. One was still able to talk after he was hit.
“Does it look bad?” he asked, witnesses told investigators.
The boy died on the way to the hospital, the report said.