Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of Defence Ministry Board in Moscow

Russia’s military set to expand as Putin vows to continue fighting in Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin described the fighting in Ukraine as a “tragedy” but vowed to pursue his campaign there until its goals are reached, while his defense chief on Wednesday announced a plan to increase Russia’s military from 1 million personnel to 1.5 million.

Speaking at a meeting Putin held with top military brass, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the 1.5 million-member military should include 695,000 volunteer contract soldiers. He didn’t say when the increased strength would be achieved.

Shoigu also declared plans to form new military units in western Russia to counterbalance plans by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

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Putin ordered an unpopular mobilization of 300,000 reservists in September to beef up Russia’s forces in Ukraine. He has said that 150,000 of them were deployed to combat zones in the neighboring country, while the rest were undergoing training.

In Wednesday’s speech, the Russian leader again accused the West of provoking the conflict in Ukraine as part of centuries-long efforts to weaken and eventually break up Russia. Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected such rhetoric and described the Russian attack as an unprovoked act of aggression.

“We always considered the Ukrainian people as brotherly, and I still think so,” Putin declared Wednesday. “What’s going on is certainly a tragedy, but it’s not a result of our policy.”

“For centuries, our strategic adversaries have been setting the goal to disintegrate and weaken our country … viewing it as too big and posing a potential threat,” Putin said

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When Putin sent his troops into Ukraine in February, he said the action was aimed at the “demilitarization” of Ukraine and preventing the country from joining NATO and becoming an anti-Russian bulwark.

He also has claimed the attack was aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine to free it from the purported influence of radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, allegations that Ukraine and its allies have dismissed.

Putin vowed that what he termed a “special military operation” would continue until its tasks are completed.

“I don’t have any doubt that all the goals set will be achieved,” he said.