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Putin: ‘Our goal is not to destroy all of Ukraine’

In a wide-ranging news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia has no intention to “destroy all of Ukraine.” He warned a direct conflict with NATO would be a “global catastrophe” and that Russia does not plan more troop mobilizations.

(CN) — Appearing confident and relaxed, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a news conference on Friday where he said he did not regret ordering an invasion of his neighbor and that Russia does not intend to “destroy all of Ukraine.”

“Our goal is not to destroy all of Ukraine,” Putin said at a wide-ranging news conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.

It was a rare occasion where he discussed the war in Ukraine in a public format since ordering the invasion of Russia’s southern neighbor on Feb. 24, a decision that’s thrown into chaos world affairs and sparked fears of a nuclear confrontation between Moscow and Washington.

His statement about not wanting to destroy “all of Ukraine” comes after nearly eight months of a war that has gone very poorly for Putin and his army. Western and Ukrainian leaders accuse him of indeed trying to destroy Ukraine as a state and forcing it to come under Russian control. Critics charge Putin with seeking to reestablish the Russian Empire.

After initially trying to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and install a puppet government, Putin has had to re-calibrate his ambitions and focus on seizing four Ukrainian regions in the east and south. His troops have occupied large parts of those regions, but combat has been fierce and Russian troops are slowly being pushed back across much of the front lines.

Following a humiliating retreat from Kharkiv in early September, Putin quickly moved to consolidate his territorial gains in Ukraine by ordering the mobilization of 300,000 more Russian troops and declaring the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions with sizable Russian-speaking populations.

The Kharkiv retreat came after Ukraine, backed by NATO weapons and intelligence, mounted a successful counterattack. Ukrainian forces continue to attack along the front lines, though their progress has slowed considerably and Kyiv’s forces now face the grim prospect of urban warfare in order to push back Russian forces farther.

Putin was in Astana, the Kazakh capital, to attend a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a trade and political organization made up of ex-Soviet republics set up in the wake of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

Ukraine and Georgia both dropped out of the commonwealth following territorial armed conflicts involving Russia and pro-Russian separatists. The commonwealth is a post-Soviet version of both the Warsaw Pact — the former Soviet military alliance — and the former communist economic bloc. It is also a competitor to NATO and the European Union.

In the news conference, Putin said Russia was not planning any more “massive” strikes against Ukraine. On Monday, Moscow fired more than 80 rockets and a slew of Iranian-made kamikaze drones at Ukrainian cities in retaliation for an attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge, a key artillery linking Russia to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Putin annexed in 2014. The strikes left large swaths of Ukraine without electricity and it may be weeks before power is restored in many places.

“There is no need now for massive strikes,” Putin said. “There are other tasks. For now. And then it will be clear.”

He also said any clash with NATO would lead to a “global catastrophe,” adding that he hoped NATO leaders understood that.

On the subject of his decision to round up 300,000 more troops to fight in Ukraine, he said about 16,000 new reservists are already on the front lines, which extend some 700 miles, and that in all about 222,000 fresh troops have been mobilized. He said there are no plans for further mobilization orders.

Putin warned that Russia may drop out of a deal with Ukraine that allows the passage of grain shipments. This statement comes after Russia’s intelligence agency said a bomb used to blow up a portion of the Kerch Strait Bridge was shipped out of Ukraine under the guise of the grain corridor. Grain prices soared following Putin's threat to pull out of the deal that the Kremlin signed with Ukraine and Turkey.

His public appearance in Astana comes ahead of a likely trip to Indonesia where he is expected to attend a Group of 20 meeting alongside U.S. President Joe Biden.

On Friday, Putin dismissed the likelihood of sitting down with Biden in Indonesia.

“[Biden] should be asked whether he is ready to hold such negotiations with me or not,” Putin said in response to a reporter's question. “To be honest, I don’t see any need by and large. There is no platform for any negotiations for the time being.”

Putin said no direct talks with any of the leaders of the G-20 were on the agenda. He kept open the possibility that he would not attend.

The G-20 summit is due to take place on the Indonesian island of Bali on Nov. 15 and 16.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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