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Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has not ruled out that the fighting in Ukraine could turn into a "lengthy process," while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine will not leave any of its citizens under Russian occupation.
The two presidents made the comments on December 7 as they addressed separate human rights organizations.
Putin, who met in a televised meeting of his Human Rights Council, said the "special military operation" could go on for a long time, and called Russia's annexation of part of the territories of Ukraine a major achievement of the operation.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Putin said roughly nine and a half months after ordering the invasion.
Putin vowed to “consistently fight for our interests" and to “protect ourselves using all means available” and reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send troops into Ukraine.
Putin described the land gains as “a significant result for Russia,” noting that the Sea of Azov "has become Russia’s internal sea” and recalled how Tsar Peter the Great fought to get access to it.
Russia captured the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol in May after a nearly three-month siege of the city. In September, Putin illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, and Luhansk -- even though his forces did not completely control them. Russia illegally seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine has managed to recapture some territories, including Kherson city and the entire right bank of the Kherson region after the withdrawal of Russian forces last month.
Zelenskiy, who addressed the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, said Ukrainian forces have liberated 1,888 settlements from Russian occupation so far in the fighting.
The war has turned into a war for survival, he said.
“Hundreds of our cities and villages were simply burned to the ground due to Russian strikes,” he said. “We have already managed to free 1,888 settlements from occupation. But almost as many Ukrainian towns and villages remain under occupation. And this means that now the fate of millions of people is being decided on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
He stressed that Ukraine will not leave "any of our people under Russian occupation," in Russian camps, "where thousands have already disappeared," or on Russian territory, "where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were forcibly deported."
The subject of nuclear weapons was also discussed during Putin’s meeting with the Human Rights Council, whose members are mostly people who fully support the Kremlin's policy. Asked by a member of the council to pledge that Russia would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, Putin refused to give guarantees.
Russia's military strategy, he said, envisions the use of weapons of mass destruction in response to an attack.
Russia intends to protect "national interests" -- first by "peaceful means" and if this does not help, then by "all available,” Putin said.
"That means if a strike is launched against us, we will strike back in response," Putin said.
Putin has raised alarm in Western countries by making veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons. These have raised fears that the Russian military could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine in order to achieve results more quickly.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, asked about Putin's remarks, declined to reply directly but said, "We think any loose talk of nuclear weapons is absolutely irresponsible."
Putin also said it made no sense to talk about another mobilization because there is no need for it "to date."
About half of the 300,000 conscripts recently mobilized are in the "special operations" zone, but only 70,000 are directly at the front, he said.
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