Russia is ready to negotiate with all parties involved in the war in Ukraine but Kyiv and its Western backers have refused to engage in talks, Vladimir Putin said in an interview aired on Sunday.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has triggered the most deadly conflict in Europe since the second World War and the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. There is, thus far, little end in sight to the war. The Kremlin says it will fight until all its aims are achieved while Kyiv says it will not rest until every Russian soldier is ejected from all of its territory, including Crimea which Russia annexed in 2014.
Air-raid sirens sent Ukrainians already on edge from months of war and bitter cold to seek shelter on Christmas Day. The alert was lifted in most of Ukraine after about two hours, and there were no immediate reports of Russian strikes landing in the country. But it added to the anxiety of Ukraine’s first Christmas since Russia’s invasion, after days of warnings from officials that Putin’s forces would unleash a new wave of strikes targeting energy infrastructure.
As Ukrainians marked the holiday with resilience, gathering despite the sirens in churches and chapels for Christmas services, Mr Putin repeated the claim that he was defending Russia’s national interests and that Ukraine and its allies were to blame for the conflict that has entered its 11th month.
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“We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them - we are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are,” the Russian president told Rossiya 1 state television in the interview.
Mr Putin said Russia was acting in the “right direction” in Ukraine because the West, led by the United States, was trying to cleave Russia apart. Washington denies it is plotting Russia’s collapse.
“I believe that we are acting in the right direction, we are defending our national interests, the interests of our citizens, our people. And we have no other choice but to protect our citizens,” he said.
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Asked if the geopolitical conflict with the West was approaching a dangerous level, Mr Putin said: “I don’t think it’s so dangerous.”
Mr Putin said the West had begun the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 by toppling a pro-Russian president in the Maidan Revolution protests.
Soon after that revolution, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist forces began fighting Ukraine's armed forces in eastern Ukraine.
“Actually, the fundamental thing here is the policy of our geopolitical opponents which is aimed at pulling apart Russia, historical Russia,” he said.
Mr Putin casts what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine as a watershed moment when Moscow finally stood up to a Western bloc he says has been seeking to destroy Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine and the West say Moscow has no justification for what they cast as an imperial-style war of occupation which has sown suffering and death across Ukraine.
Putin described Russia as a “unique country” and said the vast majority of its people were united in wanting to defend it. “As for the main part - the 99.9 per cent of our citizens, our people who are ready to give everything for the interests of the Motherland – there is nothing unusual for me here,” he said.
“This just once again convinces me that Russia is a unique country and that we have an exceptional people. This has been confirmed throughout the history of Russia’s existence.”
Meanwhile, in a defiant message on Christmas Day, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country remains unbowed despite Russian attacks that have plunged millions into darkness.
Speaking 10 months to the day since Russian launched a war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions more, Mr Zelenskiy said that while freedom came at a high price, slavery would cost even more.
“We endured at the beginning of the war - we withstood attacks, threats, nuclear blackmail, terror, missile strikes. We will endure this winter because we know what we are fighting for,” he said.
Relentless Russian missile and drone attacks since October have caused massive damage to the power-generating system, regularly leaving major cities without water and heat.
“Even in complete darkness, we will find each other to hug each other tightly. And if there is no heat, we will embrace each other for a long time to warm one another,” he said.
“We will smile and be happy, as always. There is one difference - we will not wait for a miracle, since we are creating it ourselves.”
Mr Zelenskiy made his remarks in a video address to Ukrainians who celebrate Christmas in December. Most Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians and mark the occasion in early January.
The clip, which lasted just under nine minutes, was filmed outside at night with just a few white lights and a Christmas tree in the background.
The president noted Ukrainian troops were fighting battles in the eastern Donbas region while others were in exile both home and abroad, having fled the Russians.
“We have been fighting them for more than 300 days and eight years. Will we allow them to achieve what they want?” he said, referring to Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea.