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Putin challenges West to fight Russia on the battlefield: ‘Let them try’

More than four months into the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged Thursday that the conflict had only just begun. And he challenged Western countries supporting Ukraine to “try” to fight Russia on the battlefield.

In televised remarks to parliamentary leaders, Putin pushed back on the idea that Russia has let the invasion drag on for too long, saying it hadn’t “even really started anything yet.” He said negotiating peace is getting more and more difficult, then focused his ire on Western countries that have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia while offering support and resources to Ukraine.

“We hear today that they want us to be defeated on the battlefield,” Putin said, according to state media outlet RIA Novosti. “Well, what can I say? Let them try.”

He added: “We have heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is heading toward this.”

The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is now almost completely under Russian control, said Friday that the city of Severodonetsk is facing a “humanitarian disaster.” Critical infrastructure, including the sewage system, has been badly damaged by months of fighting, and “there is no centralized water, gas or electricity supply,” he said, adding that 80 percent of homes in the city have been damaged.

Severodonetsk faces ‘humanitarian disaster’; U.N. warns of ‘hunger catastrophe’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated on Thursday that he is not considering ceding territory in a potential peace deal with Russia. Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia has emboldened Zelensky, who has since repeatedly disparaged the idea of allowing Moscow to redraw its border and annex land it has captured during the fighting.

“Ukrainians are not ready to give up their lands as new territories of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, shaking his head as he spoke. “This is our land. We have always said this, and we will never give it up.”

Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak recently listed Ukraine’s conditions for peace with Russia, including a cease-fire, the return of kidnapped citizens and the withdrawal of Russian troops throughout the country.

Despite Putin’s bravado, the Russian military is facing significant long-term challenges. International sanctions are hurting Moscow’s ability to replenish its arsenal, forcing Russia to devolve into a secondhand economy dependent on poor substitutes. Russia is increasingly determined to make its own goods and components — even if it means returning to policies of import substitution that yielded a vast, if globally uncompetitive, industrial complex before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Russians face prospect of Soviet-style shortages as sanctions bite

The Kremlin is also scrambling to find experienced fighters after losing many troops earlier in the invasion. The Kremlin has so far declined to order a general mobilization of draft-age soldiers, saying that such a move could signal that the war is not proceeding as well as depicted in the Russian media. Instead, the military has embarked on a campaign to expand the ranks of active soldiers who have voluntarily signed contracts by cold-calling eligible men and trying to reactivate reservists.

Russian army ramps up recruitment as steep casualties thin the ranks

Even though the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday that troops fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas area would temporarily halt their military operations to “replenish their combat capabilities,” a hail of Russian rockets fell on cities and villages across Ukraine, killing several civilians and injuring many more, according to local leaders.

Despite the appearance that the invasion is not going as smoothly for Russia as its leaders intended, Putin suggested that invading forces still had more to unleash on Ukraine.

“Everybody should know that largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” Putin told parliamentary leaders. “The course of history is unstoppable, and attempts by the collective West to enforce its version of the global order are doomed to fail.”

Addressing whether peace remained possible, he said it was not impossible — but he also issued a warning to Western countries.

“We do not refuse negotiating peace, but those who refuse should know that the further they refuse, the more difficult it will be to negotiate,” Putin said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed Putin’s sentiments on Friday, saying the Russian president “operated on the statements that are heard from Western countries” regarding how the invasion is going for Russia.

“Putin simply reminded that … Russia’s potential is so great in this regard that only a small part of it is now involved in a special military operation,” Peskov said, according to Russian state media. “And therefore, all these statements by the Westerners are literally absurd. They are absurd and they simply add grief to the Ukrainian people.”

Reis Thebault, Mary Ilyushina and Anthony Faiola contributed to this report.

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