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Invigorated by successes in Ukraine, Putin speaks to Russians before polls

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Moscow, Russia – Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled Thursday to give his annual address to the nation, weeks before an election expected to hand him an easy victory as his troops make gains in Ukraine and the economy weathers Western sanctions.

Two years after he launched his assault on Ukraine, Putin’s position has improved.

Last year at this time, Russian troops were reeling from Ukrainian counteroffensives that pushed them back in northeastern and southern Ukraine.

But after a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023 failed to bring similar results, today Kyiv has moved to defensive positions.

The initially strong Western support for Ukraine also appears to be shaking, with a $60-billion US aid package stalled in Congress.

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Outgunning Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, Putin’s troops seized the eastern stronghold of Avdiivka and are attempting to build on their advances.

And on the economic front, Russia is faring better than many expected.

Massive investment in military production, as well as high salaries and benefits for soldiers, has largely shielded the economy from the worst consequences of Western sanctions.

Putin said his speech would “of course” mention the presidential elections that will take place March 15-17 without any real opposition candidates on the ballot.

There is little doubt on the outcome of the elections, but Putin has been making numerous media appearances since the start of the year, including recently flying a Russian bomber.

He said he would already “set the objectives for at least the next six years” during the speech on Thursday.

Other specifics of the address due to take place from 12:00 pm (0900 GMT) at the Gostiny Dvor Palace near Moscow’s Red Square remain unknown.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to discuss details.

“The president is personally working on the text” of the address, he said Tuesday.

Russian media reported that his speech would be broadcast not only on television but also free of charge in cinemas in 20 cities in Russia.

Putin could react to the appeal by pro-Russian separatists in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, who asked Moscow for “protection” on Wednesday.

He could also address a statement from his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who refused to rule out the dispatch of Western forces to Ukraine.

The Russian leader traditionally takes stock of the past year and sets out new strategic directions in front of his country’s political and military elite.

For the past few years he has used the event as a platform to criticize what he calls West’s “decadence” — anything that deviates from the traditionalist values promoted by the Kremlin.

In 2023, he accused Western countries of using the conflict in Ukraine as a way “to be done with Russia”.

He also said Russians who had chosen “the path of betrayal” needed to be brought to justice amid a heightening crackdown on dissent.

Thursday’s speech also comes on the eve of the funeral planned in Moscow for Putin’s top opponent Alexei Navalny, who died in prison on 16 February in unclear circumstances.

Putin, who famously never referred to the opposition leader by name, has so far remained silent on Navalny’s death that prompted outrage at home and abroad. AFP

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