Russia “had no other choice” than to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has said.
In a rare public appearance since his forces invaded Ukraine in February, Russia’s president said the “special military operation” was launched to protect civilians in the predominately Russian-speaking Donbas.
Thwarted in his apparent ambition to overrun the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Mr Putin is now building up forces for a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region, and insisted that his campaign would continue until it achieved its goals.
He also announced Russia would launch a lunar probe later this year.
On a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport in Russia’s Far East on the 61st anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space, Mr Putin recalled Soviet successes and said sanctions would not slow it down.
Inflation and rising food and petrol prices in the West would also begin to put pressure on politicians there, he said – adding that “time” would put everything in its proper place.
One of his few remaining allies, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, was with Mr Putin as he promised to work more closely with Belarus on space infrastructure and technology.
The Russian leader’s public appearances have been limited recently.
Addressing the war in public for the first time since his forces retreated from northern Ukraine, he said Russia had to fight and defend the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine.
Asked by space agency workers if the operation in Ukraine would achieve its goals, Mr Putin said: “Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt at all.”
“Its goals are absolutely clear and noble,” the president said. “There is no doubt that the goals will be achieved.”
Speaking about the West’s crippling sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion, he added: “That Blitzkrieg on which our foes were counting did not work.”
The penalties include restrictions on scientific funding and cooperation.
Once the offensive began on 24 February, Mr Putin mostly confined himself to TV appearances, which he has used to praise the Russian military and claim everything was going to plan, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Last Friday, he laid a wreath at the funeral of the ultranationalist Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, reportedly accompanied by an aide carrying Russia’s nuclear weapons codes, or its so-called “nuclear football”.
Before that, Mr Putin was also seen on 18 March to officially mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Key developments in the war in Ukraine:
• Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for more weapons from the West, particularly for the defence of Mariupol
• Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer met Mr Putin and warned that an offensive in Ukraine’s east was “being prepared on a massive scale”
• Allegations of rape, executions, and other war crimes are still coming to light in areas around Kyiv, where the Russians pulled out in recent weeks. Russia says these are Ukrainian and Western provocations
• Reuters data shows that, while many Western countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, India – lured by massive discounts – has purchased more Russian crude oil since the beginning of the invasion than it did for the whole of last year.
Speaking at the cosmodrome 3,450 miles (5,550km) east of Moscow, Mr Putin said Russia would develop a new generation transport spaceship and technologies for nuclear energy in space.
He also said it would launch a probe called Luna-25 to the moon in the third quarter of this year and promised the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, would train a Belarusian to join one of its flights.