Putin is already campaigning: he promised military triumphs in Ukraine during a meeting with his campaign team

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with activists of his election campaign in Moscow (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) (Alexander Zemlianichenko/)

The president of Russia Vladimir Putin pledged Wednesday to push back Ukrainian forces to reduce the threat of attacks on Russian territory as he met with activists leading his campaign ahead of the March presidential election who will surely win.

When asked about plans for the military campaign in Ukraine, Putin said the contact line must retreat to “such a distance from our territory that makes it safe from the long-range artillery supplied by the West that the Ukrainian authorities use to bomb peaceful cities.”

He added that the Russian military has been doing just that, “expelling the enemy from vital population centers.” “This is the main reason for our boys who fight and risk their lives there: to protect the Homeland, to protect our people,” he added.

Ukraine has recently attacked inside Russia, including a Dec. 30 attack in the border town of Belgorod that killed 25 people and wounded more than 100.

Putin also said that Russian investigators concluded that Ukraine used Patriot air defense systems supplied by the United States to shoot down a Russian military transport plane in the Belgorod region on January 24. Russian authorities said the accident killed the 74 people on board, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war heading for an exchange.

Ukrainian officials did not deny the downing of the plane, but they did not take responsibility and called for an international investigation.

Putin said Russia would not only welcome but “insist” on an international investigation into what he described as a “crime” committed by Ukraine.

FILE PHOTO.  Members of an electoral commission empty a ballot box to count ballots during a local election (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)
FILE PHOTO. Members of an electoral commission empty a ballot box to count ballots during a local election (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko) (Alexander Ermochenko/)

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate, relies on tight control over the Russian political system he has established during 24 years in power.

With prominent critics who could challenge him imprisoned or living abroad and with most independent media banned, his re-election in the March 15-17 presidential election is virtually assured.

“Russia has been forced to defend its interests, including by military means,” Putin said at the meeting with his campaign staff, saying that even as the meeting was going on, Russian troops made new gains on the outskirts of the city of Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine.

“We are going through a very difficult and important period in the development of our country, the strengthening of its independence and sovereignty in all vectors,” he stated. “The dross that is always present is being eliminated little by little.”

According to a constitutional reform that he designed, Putin is eligible to seek two more six-year terms, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036. He is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalinwho died in 1953.

Three other candidates nominated by parties represented in parliament are also running: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov of the New People’s Party.

All three parties have largely supported the Kremlin’s policies. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

Boris Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old local lawmaker from a city near Moscow, is also looking to run. He has openly called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine and a dialogue with the West.

Thousands of Russians across the country signed petitions in support of Nadezhdin’s candidacy, a rare show of opposition sympathies in the rigidly controlled political landscape that poses a challenge to the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Nadezhdin presented 105,000 signatures to the Central Election Commission, which is expected to review them in the coming days.

(With information from AP)