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Meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu

February 20, 2024, The Kremlin, Moscow

The President met with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Shoigu, all of us – you, me, and the Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] left these rooms early in the morning, at 4 am on February 17. You reported then that the situation in the Avdeyevka direction was developing fast – you even said in a sweeping way – and that we should see what would happen in the next few hours. You limited yourself to this statement and this was probably right. You reported with caution.

As far as I understand, and as Mr Mordvichev reported the day before yesterday, at 6–7 am, our adversary began a chaotic withdrawal from this settlement. And, was it at 11 am? …you were back here again with the Chief of the General Staff and reported on a chaotic rout of the enemy from Avdeyevka. As I recall, by that time Ukrainian Armed Forces command had issued an order on the withdrawal of their troops when they were already moving and leaving this residential area.

I believe this was done for political considerations – to cover up a retreat and make it look like an organised withdrawal. We saw it and we know that this wasn’t the case, that these troops were actually fleeing in the literal sense of the word. As I said, Mr Mordvichev reported to me the day before yesterday on what was happening at that time.

I would like to hear your evaluation of what is taking place now.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, I will start by saying that reports were delivered on a regular basis. Almost ten days ago, you had a conversation with the commander of the assault group and the Veterans volunteer unit, who, in our opinion, carried out a unique operation using a pipeline to get to southern Avdeyevka deep behind the enemy lines – almost 3.5 kilometres – and established a rather large foothold there, which other troops linked up with three days later. The operation was a success.

With regard to the current situation, this colour [on the map] represents the state of things as of the time of our report to you that the enemy began to retreat, or rather flee, from Avdeyevka. This is Avdeyevka itself. By the time of our report to you at 11 am, this area was practically liberated. Further on, active movements by all forces and the Aerospace Forces started, or rather, continued. As of the time of our report to you at 11 am, Koksokhim [the Avdeyevka coke and chemical plant] had not been liberated. Koksokhim is now liberated, and we are headed westward towards this settlement, moving from the south and the southwest. The troops are still operating along the front line, the effort is ongoing, and the mission assignments are being carried out.

Regarding the orders to withdraw the troops in an organised manner, we began working on this practically two months ago. A variety of weapons were used, and the strikes and the movement of enemy troops were recorded during the day and at night. So, we have on tape everything that happened within the enemy lines that night and the night after. The only reason we did this was to know, first, the location of the targets to avoid hitting empty areas, to deal specific, precise strikes.

We launched about 460 such strikes during the last 24 hours before the enemy left Avdeyevka. These were really high-precision strikes. Speaking in terms of tonnes and kilogrammes, about 200 tonnes hit the targets daily.

In other respects, the troops remain active. We reported to you that we used that same pipeline again and came out here. So, we had our troops here, and the enemy was there. All of that area is now surrounded, and it is a done deal. As the enemy retreated, they left behind many wounded soldiers who became our POWs because they simply were unable to move.

A lot of weapons were left behind as well, a lot of firearms, many ATGMs and MANPADs. All of that is being collected. A sweeping demining effort is underway. A lot has been left behind. Since they retreated in a hasty and chaotic manner, there are no sites that have been mined on purpose.

Mr President, here is what I would like to draw your attention to. It took them nine years to build this fortified area. For nine years, day after day, underground passages, concrete structures and special lines were built to make sure they could move around without having to show up above ground.

So, the fact that we overpowered the enemy here is a big success for the combined group of forces, units, and formations, everyone without exception. By all means, the Aerospace Forces and the army aviation, assault aviation deserve mention. Much depended on whether we would give the enemy any respite from our attacks.

Vladimir Putin: You recalled the Veterans unit. All military units, all military personnel deserve the highest decorations, incentives, words of gratitude, of course, on behalf of the country, on behalf of Russia, on behalf of our people. Clearly, all of them have acted courageously and heroically.

As for the Veterans, this is, of course, a special case. Their commander told me – he told me personally – that the diameter of that pipe was 1.1 m or 1.2 m. And they, big men, went through that pipe for more than three kilometres without knowing where to go. They got out of it in practically an unknown place, immediately captured 19 buildings and held out there for several days until they were reinforced. They suffered losses. But overall, this is, of course, a special page in military history, in the history of Russia defending its vital interests.

I would like to ask you to pay attention to them.

Have they been withdrawn from the zone? Are they taking a rest?

Sergei Shoigu: They are recovering now. They are taking a break and getting ready for future operations. Nobody doubts that they will return. I mean they have no doubts about this, and we certainly have none.

Vladimir Putin: Now about POWs. I know, and this has always been the way with us – during the special military operation, and now we must continue this practice as well – our attitude to prisoners must strictly conform to the relevant documents of international law and international conventions. This is how we have always acted. I know we have held them in a worthy manner. I would like you to stick to this practice.

Now about the situation in Avdeyevka in general. This is a clear success. My congratulations to you. It is necessary to build on this success, this is also clear. But further action must be well planned and supported – properly manned, outfitted with weapons, equipment, and ammunition. We will discuss this separately. In fact, you and I talk about this every day. It seems to go without saying but nonetheless I would like to draw your attention to it.

There is one sector to which I would also like to draw your attention and discuss. I talked with Mikhail Teplinsky the day before yesterday. He reported to me about the village of Krynki on the left bank of the Dnieper. If you recall, this question was even asked during my Direct Line. I said then that I did not understand why the adversary was doing that to its own people, why it was sending them practically to certain death there and treating them as if they were not its own people at all.

Mr Teplinsky reported that this locality on the left bank of the Dnieper River is practically – not practically, but completely – under our control. The necessary defensive lines have been built there. He told me there were four to five soldiers hiding out there. They are encouraged to surrender, and those who do are taken prisoner. But three or four people, he said, are still holed up in the woodland or the dugouts.

I am aware of his assessment, and I would like to hear what you have to say about what is going on in that area.

Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, I am aware of the report by Colonel-General Teplinsky. I confirm his report. It is indeed so. The village of Krynki has been cleared. We have effectively taken up positions along the entire length of the Krynka and Konka rivers. Today, what we have there is not just observation posts. We have troops stationed there.

The paratroopers and the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade did very well.

Vladimir Putin: Marines.

Sergei Shoigu: Correct. You know the commander of the brigade. You have met with him, talked to him several times, and thanked him for his proactive actions in other sectors of the contact line. Here, they are acting just as proactively and effectively.

This part of the work has been completed, Mr President, but I would not want our colleagues to think that Krynki is just a small and inconsequential village where things were slow.

As a reminder, the Dnieper grouping started operating in the Kherson direction last summer when the enemy was plotting a major breakthrough here in order to block the roads leading to Crimea. Back then, a decision was made to build a triple defensive line here. It is not shown here, it is on a different map.

So, Mr President, we left no stone unturned to make sure this work is completed on time. Next, we launched active defensive operations and grinded down enemy forces on a daily basis.

From last summer to the present day, the enemy has lost almost 3,500 troops there, 3,400. Speaking specifically about the village of Krynki, it was designated as a focal point of the main breakthrough effort, and four brigades of the enemy's 30th Marine Corps were massed there. These were well-equipped, well-trained, rested, and fully staffed units, which were supposed to break through across the Dnieper and create a foothold for further advances and deployment of forces.

The forces that were concentrated there prevented this from happening, they fulfilled their mission.

So, the only thing I can say is that the correct actions of the command thwarted daring enemy operations in Avdeyevka. It was consistent daily work that allowed us to hold and to prevent the enemy from expanding the foothold. It was a hard mission to accomplish because the shelling from the other bank continued nonstop, artillery fired shells relentlessly, and the FPV drones and UAVs were quite active.

I believe it was the first time that munitions, foods and medicines were not only delivered by boat but also by large octocopters with a large carrying capacity, which some call Baba Yaga.

As for individuals or groups of men who have been left behind, they were offered to surrender, of course. As per your instructions, two weeks ago, we stationed all kinds of loudspeakers there, which move along the shore and make announcements all the time. We understand that text messages are not a simple method, but we have also been using them along with leaflets. In other words, we continue working even if we see and understand that there are very few people left there.

So-called foxholes have been dug out along the shoreline there. The 45th Special Purpose Brigade of the Airborne Forces and other special operations forces have been deployed there, and they are doing their job. If somebody signals readiness to surrender, all the necessary measures are taken to provide medical assistance to them, if needed, but there have not been many such instances.

Vladimir Putin: No, some people have surrendered there.

Sergei Shoigu: No, Mr President, that was in the past.

Vladimir Putin: There is hardly anyone left there now. Those who are still there should stop snivelling on the air and begging to be evacuated; they should surrender.

You have done a good job, and I would like to commend you, the General Staff, commanders on the ground and all our service personnel who are working there.

Of course, the enemy is doing absolutely reckless things in terms of military strategy, but it was a kind of trap into which they kept moving. Nevertheless, judging by the current developments we can see, they may take such reckless actions again, which is why I ask you to keep this in mind and to bring this information to commanders on the ground as well.

Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, it is a path to a dead-end.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, indeed.

Sergei Shoigu: On the one hand, we understand the reasons for their actions, timing them around various events such as Ramstein conferences or other activities, meetings held to discuss assistance to Ukraine, the approval of budgets and the Pentagon’s allocations to Ukraine, as was the case at the end of last year when they launched very active operations here, in the Kherson area. We could see from intercepted radio communications and other information that they needed to demonstrate at least some achievements…

Vladimir Putin: To their sponsors.

Sergei Shoigu: Yes, to their sponsors, because the Senate and Congress were debating the allocation of aid to Ukraine bundled with assistance to Israel, as you may remember. Since they have not achieved any result, no decision has been made regarding this aid. It may be adopted later, but today we can expect [the Ukrainians] to redouble efforts ahead of another Ramstein meeting, as it happened with the Munich conference.

Vladimir Putin: They have established a headquarters abroad, outside Ukraine, which is effectively planning all these operations. Is that right?

Sergei Shoigu: Yes, Mr President, and this goes beyond external management; it entails control of all the forces. They have their instructors everywhere. Challenging their curators and instructors would likely be quite a remarkable feat for anyone.

All of last year’s plans for a large-scale, extensive counteroffensive were made in the United States and by NATO instructors, who devised very detailed strategies. Therefore, their defeat came as a serious shock to them, because the methods, technologies and patterns they had likely used elsewhere and tried to apply here too have failed.

It cannot be said that their military science has reached unprecedented heights that allowed them… the heights we saw them go to in various places like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria. I would like to remind you, even though it is now in the past, that when the decision was made to support the government of Bashar al-Assad, he controlled 18 percent of the national territory. Today, he controls over 90 percent. In essence, international terrorism, which a coalition of 67 countries planned to combat, has been defeated there.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Shoigu, you mentioned enemy casualties in Krynki and on the entire left bank of the Dnieper River. How many soldiers did the enemy lose during the recent fighting in Avdeyevka? Can you give a rough estimate of the overall enemy casualties there?

Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, during the recent hostilities… I can say that only for the last two days, February 17–18, the enemy lost 2,400 soldiers. This information comes from their own data rather than our statistics. Naturally, we take into account everything, including personnel abandoned and not evacuated by them. Mr President, these casualties are quite substantial, including what we reported to you on February 16. Before that, they redeployed … to Koksokhim on February 13 and 14…

Vladimir Putin: Two battalions.

Sergei Shoigu: Yes, two battalions. These people are sworn nationalists. Considering Koksokhim’s defences, established over the past nine years, we believed we would probably act in the same manner there as we had done at Azovstal in Mariupol. At that time, we decided at this desk here that we would simply encircle the enemy and wait. We wanted to use the same tactics in this case, but…

Vladimir Putin: They realised this and chose to flee.

Sergei Shoigu: Yes, they chose to flee.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Shoigu, there is another issue unrelated to current developments along the forward edge of the front line of the special military operation. This pertains to the commotion stirred by the West, including the United States, regarding the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space.

Our position is clear and transparent: We have always strongly opposed, and continue to oppose, the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space. On the contrary, we urge the involved parties to uphold all agreements in this sphere, and have proposed expanding this collaborative effort several times.

For some reason, the West has brought up this issue once again and is acting rather emotionally. How can you explain this?

Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, first, I would like to clarify that this is not happening. Second, they know that we are not doing this…

Vladimir Putin: “Not doing” meaning that we do not deploy weapons in outer space.

Sergei Shoigu: Exactly, I am referring to the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space and the use of any other nuclear weapons systems against satellites or creating debris fields that would hamper the effective operation of satellites.

In reality, they know that we are not doing this, yet they are raising a fuss nonetheless. Mr President, we are surprised because everyone is aware of our capabilities, and you openly told the world about this during your Address to the Federal Assembly in 2018.

They know that our Poseidon, Peresvet, Burevestnik and Sarmat projects have reached the completion phase, and that the Avangard project has been completed. Two regiments have been put on combat duty. We can add a few other options in this situation. They are not speaking about this, but it really is something they should be afraid of.

In our opinion, they are probably not speaking about this because they do not possess such systems. As we see it, there are two reasons for the recent commotion. First, they want to scare senators and members of Congress into approving the allocation of funds designed not only for Ukraine but for fighting Russia and delivering a strategic defeat to it. Second, they may be doing this to try to convince us in this awkward manner to start a dialogue on strategic stability.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I agree with that.

Sergei Shoigu: This is the most likely explanation.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I agree. As for space, we are only doing in space what other countries are doing, including the United States. And you are right, of course, that they are aware of this.

Regarding the talks, we were never against talks; we have always been for this, including when it comes to Ukraine, the Ukrainian issue. I said a million times that we did not stop the dialogue, that it was the Ukrainian side that stopped it, and that it did this on direct orders from London and Washington. Ukraine has openly stated this, at the official level. I do not know why they are doing this, but they are talking about this publicly.

As for strategic stability, we never refused to talk about it either. Of course, it is impossible to reconcile the calls by the United States and the West for Russia’s strategic defeat with claims about their desire to hold strategic stability talks with us, as if these two issues were not interconnected. If they want to inflict a strategic defeat on us, we must reconsider the meaning of strategic stability for our country.

In other words, we do not reject any ideas; we do not refuse to discuss anything. But we need to understand what they want. They usually want to achieve unilateral advantages. They will not succeed. Nevertheless, contacts are possible, of course, at the level of the Defence Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


February 20, 2024, The Kremlin, Moscow