By Maria Starkova
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had largely vanished from public view since his forces were driven from the approaches to Kyiv this month, resurfaced on Tuesday to defend his “noble” invasion of Ukraine, saying peace talks had come to a dead end.
In a press event inside a hangar at a far eastern space base six time zones from Moscow, Putin rattled off talking points: that Moscow had “no choice” but to intervene to protect separatists, defeat neo-Nazis and “help people”.
Russia’s economy was standing on its feet despite Western sanctions, he added, and signs of war crimes allegedly carried out by Russian troops were fakes staged by the West. As for talks: “We have again returned to a dead-end situation for us.”
It was only his second public appearance in a week, following a brief appearance at the funeral of a nationalist lawmaker where he said nothing directly about the war.
Asked by workers at the space base if the operation in Ukraine would achieve its goals, Putin said: “Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt at all.”
“Its goals are absolutely clear and noble.”
But in those remarks, and a later news conference held before flags at the back of the hangar alongside his wartime ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Putin frequently seemed to ramble or stammer. Only occasionally did he adopt the icy, confident demeanour that has been his trademark in public appearances over more than 22 years as Russia’s leader.
“That Blitzkrieg which our foes were counting on did not work,” Putin said, of financial sanctions.
Putin’s recent withdrawal from public appearances was a change for a leader who was ubiquitous on Russian television in the early days of the war.
On Monday he met the visiting chancellor of Austria. But the meeting was held at a country residence outside Moscow and no images were released, a contrast from talks with Western leaders on the eve of the war, when they were pictured seated at opposite ends of a huge table in the ornate Kremlin palace.
Russia’s tanks pulled out of northern Ukraine after failing in what the West believes was a mission to swiftly capture the capital Kyiv. Many of the towns they left behind were littered with the bodies of civilians killed in what Kyiv says was a campaign of murder, torture and rape.
Moscow denies targeting civilians or carrying out war crimes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy published a photo of prominent Ukrainian pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk in handcuffs after what Zelenskiy described as an operation by security forces.
Kyiv had said Medvedchuk, who faced a treason case, escaped from house arrest days after the invasion began. Medvedchuk, who says Putin is godfather to his daughter, denies wrongdoing.
Russia says its campaign now aims to capture more territory on behalf of separatists in two eastern provinces that make up the Donbas. It includes Mariupol port, which has been reduced to a wasteland under Russian siege.
Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside that city with no way to bring in food or water, and accuses Russia of blocking aid convoys.
The battle for Mariupol appeared on Tuesday to be reaching a decisive phase, with Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district. Reuters journalists accompanying Russian-backed separatists saw flames billowing from the Azovstal district.
Since Putin sent troops over the border on Feb. 24, about a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million population have been forced from their homes and thousands have been killed or injured.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region, which includes Mariupol, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in the city but could not confirm them.
“We know that last night around midnight a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell,” he told CNN.
They were taken to hospital and their lives were not in danger, he said.
Zelenskiy had said on Monday that Russia may resort to chemical weapons as it massed troops for a new assault. He did not say if they actually had been used. The United States and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Russia’s defence ministry has not responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.
After their troops got bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their bid to capture the capital Kyiv. But they are redoubling efforts in the east, including Donetsk and the neighbouring Luhansk region, where Governor Serhiy Gaidai urged residents to evacuate.
“It’s far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media. “Evacuate, with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”
Zelenskiy pleaded overnight for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected eastern offensive.
“Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster…in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
PHOTO: Putin speaking in Russia’s far east on Tuesday – the individual seen centre is believed to be carrying Russia’s nuclear codes Reuters