Putin confronted by critical text messages beamed on screen at year-end news conference

By Isaac M December 15, 2023

Across the four hours of a marathon end-of-year press conference, Vladimir Putin offered a familiar mix of threats and jibes against Western nations as he tried to paint a rosy picture of Russian life.

However, he was confronted by criticism from ordinary Russians when text messages were beamed in front of him in an apparent gaffe.

Having cancelled the usual annual event last year, this was the first held since the Russian president launched his war almost two years ago.

Mr Putin said “there will only be peace in Ukraine when we achieve our aims” – essentially forcing Kyiv into submission. It is a threat that Russia has repeated while Ukraine’s forces have put up a stout defence of their territory.

Putin was holding his first press conference since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine last February


With Mr Putin having recently announced he is running for the presidency again in March 2024, he had to be seen to be backing his war machine, although even he let slip that any Russian gains in Ukraine were “modest”; Kremlin-speak for the fact that there has been little movement on the frontlines in recent months.

The heavily stage-managed news conference was watched by millions across Russia. Ordinary citizens submitted questions alongside those from journalists, and Russian media said at least 2 million were sent in advance, with some being shown on a screen at the venue, even if they weren’t answered by Mr Putin. That led to some awkward messages for the president.

“Why is your ‘reality’ at odds with our lived reality?” one message read. Another criticised the Kremlin’s propaganda, saying: “Mr President, why does the real Russia differ from the one on television?” it said.

“This question won’t be shown! I’d like to know, when will our president pay attention to his own country? We’ve got no education, no healthcare. The abyss lies ahead…” a third said.

Many of those who have questioned the war in Ukraine in public have faced jail sentences, while protests over the invasion are banned.

As Mr Putin spoke, Ukrainian citizens across the country rushed underground as Russia launched missile attacks on a number of cities.

Ukrainian military soldiers fire at Russian positions in Avdiivka earlier this month


Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to president Volodymyr Zelensky, added that Mr Putin’s latest comments show the Russian leader only wants to “wage war, murder and conquer”. In a statement on Twitter/X, he added: “[Putin] hates Ukraine fiercely and that is the only reason for a large-scale war.”

The Russian president also inadvertently revealed that Russian losses during the war were significantly higher than the Kremlin had previously admitted. Mr Putin suggested that 617,000 Russians were fighting in Ukraine, having earlier claimed that 730,000 had been mobilised or volunteered.

According to military analyst Yan Matveyev, an additional 250,000 Russian soldiers were involved in the first stages of the invasion in the six months before the other mobilisation of September 2022.

Taking those numbers, Mr Matveyev said: “That is, Mr Putin literally admitted irretrievable losses in the amount of 363,000 people.” The last time the Kremlin offered an estimate of the death toll was September 2022, in which they said only 5,937 soldiers had been killed. Mr Matveyev’s calculations roughly align with the latest US intelligence estimates of Russians killed or wounded, at around 315,000 soldiers.

Amid all the bluster about Russia’s war goals, Mr Putin also raised the prospect of releasing the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, saying he hopes for a prisoner swap deal.

The Russian leader said he hoped an agreement would be reached with the United States on Mr Gershkovich, who faces up to 20 years in prison after his arrest on espionage charges, and his fellow American citizen Paul Whelan, who has been detained on similar charges. The White House has called for both men to be released.

Putin appeared briefly lost for words when confronted with an AI-generated version of himself


Asked about Mr Gershkovich and Mr Whelan, Mr Putin said: “It’s not that we decline to send them home. No, we want to come to terms and these agreements must be mutually acceptable and should be OK for both of the parties.” He added that Russia had ongoing contact with the US on the issue.

Ukraine has had a tough week diplomatically, with both the US and EU facing political fights to authorise tens of billions of pounds worth of fresh funding for Ukraine, with Mr Putin taking a jab at Western support “running out” during his press conference. But a few hours after Mr Putin finished, EU leaders unexpectedly agreed to open membership talks with Ukraine, something Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a Putin ally, had vowed to block for weeks.

EU diplomats and officials said that Mr Orban agreed to leave the room, knowing the other leaders would go ahead and vote on Ukraine. Orban confirmed on Facebook that he had abstained from the vote on what he called a “bad decision”.

Mr Zelensky praised the decision: “This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens,” he said.

It was a boost for Kyiv, as the administration of Joe Biden has so far been unable to get a $60bn aid package for Kyiv through the US Congress, while the issue of fresh EU funding is still to be resolved.

In Brussels, Ukraine’s president Zelensky had a welcome boost from the EU

(Cornelius Poppe / NTB)

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said opening the membership talks was “a strategic decision and a day that will remain engraved in the history of our Union”.

Nato secretary Jens Stoltenberg had earlier warned that support for Ukraine was vital not only to protecting their sovereignty but also to the security of the European continent.

“If Putin wins in Ukraine, there is real risk that his aggression will not end there. Our support is not charity. It is an investment in our security,” he said.

In one of the most bizarre exchanges of the news conference, Mr Putin appeared briefly lost for words when confronted with an AI-generated version of himself.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, hello, I am a student at St Petersburg State University. I want to ask, is it true you have a lot of doubles?” the double asked, prompting laughter among the audience. The question prompted a rare hesitation from Mr Putin, already in his fourth hour of taking questions at the marathon event.

“I see you may resemble me and speak with my voice. But I have thought about it and decided that only one person must be like me and speak with my voice, and that will be me,” he said. “That is my first double, by the way,” Mr Putin added as an afterthought.

There has been recurrent speculation, particularly in Western media, that Mr Putin has one or more body doubles to cover for him in some public appearances because of alleged health problems. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied this.

Reuters contributed to this report


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