(CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin used the word “war” on Thursday to refer to the conflict in Ukraine, the first time he has publicly backed away from his carefully crafted description of the invasion of Moscow as a “special military operation” 10 months after this started.
“Our goal is not to turn the wheel of the military conflict, but rather to end this war,” Putin told reporters in Moscow after attending a State Council meeting on youth policy. “We have been and will continue to fight for this.”
Putin’s critics say using the word “war” to describe the Ukraine conflict has been illegal in Russia since March, when the Russian leader signed a censorship law making it a crime to spread “false” information about the invasion, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for any convicted person.
So Putin’s use of the floor did not go unnoticed.
Nikita Yuferev, a St. Petersburg municipal legislator who fled Russia because of his anti-war stance, said on Thursday he had called on Russian authorities to prosecute Putin for “spreading false information about the military.”
“There was no decree to end the special military operation, no war was declared,” Yuferev wrote on Twitter. “Several thousand people have already been sentenced for such words about the war.”
A US official told CNN his initial assessment was that Putin’s comment was unintentional and likely a slip of the tongue. However, officials will be watching to see what figures inside the Kremlin have to say about it in the coming days.
Thousands of people have been killed, entire towns have been leveled and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure destroyed since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
That day, Putin used the term “special military operation” to describe his attack. He has framed the ongoing brutality as a “denazification” campaign (a description dismissed by historians and political observers) and has increasingly portrayed the unprovoked invasion of Russia as a quasi-existential, patriotic cause.
Putin talks about Patriot missiles and peace
Putin’s comments on Thursday came after a historic trip of Volodymyr Zelensky to Washingtonwhere the Ukrainian president delivered an impassioned speech to Congress calling for greater US support for the war effort.
During his visit, US President Joe Biden unveiled a $1.8 billion assistance package for Ukraine that includes a Patriot missile defense system, a long-standing request from Kyiv to counter Russian airstrikes.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Thursday, Putin dismissed the Patriot systems as “old” and said Russia “will always find the antidote.”
“As far as the Patriots are concerned, this is quite an old system and it doesn’t work as well as our S-300 (missile system),” Putin said.
“Those who oppose us think this is a defensive weapon, that’s what they say. But that is in your own mind and we will always find the antidote.
“So those who do are just wasting time, they’re just dragging out the conflict.”
In his address to Congress, Zelensky briefly discussed a 10-point peace formula and a summit that he told Biden about during an earlier meeting at the White House. The Ukrainian leader claimed that Biden supported the peace initiatives.
Asked by a reporter on Thursday if there was a real possibility of diplomacy in Ukraine, Putin said negotiation always preceded the end of the conflict.
“All conflicts, including armed conflicts, end one way or another with some kind of negotiation,” Putin said, accusing Zelensky of refusing to negotiate.
“We never refused, it was the Ukrainian leadership that refused to conduct negotiations… sooner or later, every party to the conflict will sit down and negotiate and the sooner those who oppose us realize it, the better,” he said.
“We have never given up.”
Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared Wednesday that the Kremlin would make substantial investment in many areas of the military. Initiatives include increasing the size of the armed forces, accelerating weapons programs and deploying a new generation of hypersonic missiles to prepare Russia for what Putin called “inevitable clashes” with its adversaries.
CNN’s Anna Chernova, Kaitlan Collins, Chris Liakos, Kevin Liptak, Maegan Vazquez and Oliver Darcy contributed to this report.