Putin raises prospect of escalation in Ukraine, denounces ‘economic blitzkrieg against Russia’

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia was just getting started in Ukraine and challenging the West to try and defeat it on the battlefield, while insisting that Moscow was still open to the idea of ​​peace talks.

In an aggressive speech to parliamentary leaders more than four months after the war, Putin said the prospects for negotiations would diminish the longer the conflict dragged on.

“Today we hear that they want to beat us on the battlefield. What can you say, let them try,” he said.

“We have often heard that the West wants to fight with us to the last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is going here.”

Russia accuses the West of waging a proxy war against the West by slashing its economy with sanctions and ramping up supplies of advanced weapons to Ukraine.

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Putin boasted that Russia was just getting started, also referred to the possibility of negotiations.

“Everyone should know that we generally haven’t started anything serious yet,” he said. “At the same time, we do not reject peace talks. But those who reject them should know that the further it goes, the harder it will be for them to negotiate with us.”

It was the first reference to diplomacy in many weeks after repeated statements from Moscow that negotiations with Kiev had broken down completely.

Since invading Ukraine on February 24, Russian forces have captured large parts of the country, including completing the seizure of the eastern region of Luhansk last Sunday.

But their progress has been much slower than many analysts had predicted, and they were beaten back in the first attempts to take the capital Kiev and the second city of Kharkov.

The prospects for a compromise seem distant as Ukraine, emboldened by Western support and the heavy losses it inflicted on its opponent in terms of both manpower and equipment, has talked about driving Russia out of all the territory it has taken.

Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on Twitter this week that the terms to resume talks would include: “Ceasefire. Z-troop withdrawal. Return of kidnapped civilians. Extradition of war criminals. Damage repair mechanism. Recognition of Ukraine’s sovereign rights.”

Putin said it was clear that Western sanctions were a problem, “but not at all what the initiators of the economic blitzkrieg against Russia were counting on.”

Parliamentary leaders responded to Putin’s comments and Sergei Mironov of the A Just Russia party encouraged him to create a special agency to facilitate the integration of occupied Ukrainian territories into Russia — an idea Putin promised to discuss.

Shelling in Eastern Ukraine

Shelling continued in eastern Ukraine, killing at least nine civilians and injuring six within 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.

Ukraine’s presidential office said in its Thursday morning update that towns and villages in seven Ukrainian regions have been shelled in the past day. Most civilian casualties occurred in Donetsk province, where fighting continues. Seven civilians, including a child, were killed there, the presidential office said.

Ten towns and villages were shelled in Donetsk and 35 buildings were destroyed, including a school, vocational school and hospital, officials said.

Donetsk is part of the Donbas, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area where Ukraine’s most experienced soldiers are concentrated. Pro-Russian separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years, controlling much of the Donbas. Putin recognized the independence of two self-proclaimed republics there just before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

People take cover on Thursday during a strike in Kramatorsk, Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. (Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press)

Putin on Monday claimed victory in Luhansk, the other province that makes up the Donbas, after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the last city they controlled there. Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai denied on Wednesday that the Russians had completely taken the province.

A boarding school was hit in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, but no one was injured. The Kharkiv region, which lies along the border with Russia, is being shelled daily and two civilians have been killed in the past 24 hours.

The Ukrainian army said on Thursday that Russian forces also carried out shelling and helicopter strikes in the northeast’s Sumy region.

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Even as the fighting continued, the British Ministry of Defense said it believes the Russian military is “reconstructing” its troops. An assessment by the ministry’s intelligence agency released Thursday said the heavy shelling along the frontline in Donetsk is likely intended to secure previous Russian gains.

The UK ministry noted a new law pending in the Russian parliament to give the government special economic powers during the war.

The law would allow Russia “to avoid acknowledging that it is engaged in war or failing to defeat Ukraine’s army that was outnumbered and under-armed,” the ministry said.

Smoke rises after shelling near the Donbas city of Slovyansk on Thursday. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

As fighting continued in the east, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it had summoned the Turkish ambassador to Kiev on Thursday over what it described as the theft of Ukrainian grain by a Russian ship.

The Russian ship Zhibek Zholy was allowed to leave Turkey’s Black Sea coast after Turkish authorities briefly detained it at Ukraine’s request. Ukraine summoned the ambassador to complain about the “unacceptable situation”.

Turkey, with its Bosphorus Strait, is an important transit route for shipping from the Black Sea. Ukraine has tried to pressure Ankara to stop Russian shipments of its grain, a vital source of income.

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