Putin clings to semblance of normality as his war grinds on

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Russian President Putin attends a meeting on the road construction development via video link outside Moscow
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By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) - Approaching the 100-day mark in a war that he refuses to call by its name, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a man intent on conveying the impression of business as usual.

As his army fought its way into the Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk this week, Putin was making awkward small talk in a televised ceremony to honour parents of exceptionally large families.

Since the start of May, he has met - mostly online - with educators, oil and transport bosses, officials responsible for tackling forest fires, and the heads of at least a dozen Russian regions, many of them thousands of miles from Ukraine.

Along with several sessions of his Security Council and a series of calls with foreign leaders, he found time for a video address to players, trainers and spectators of the All-Russian Night Hockey League.

The appearance of solid, even boring routine is consistent with the Kremlin's narrative that it is not fighting a war - merely waging a "special military operation" to bring a troublesome neighbour to heel.

For a man whose army has heavily underperformed in Ukraine and been beaten back from its two biggest cities, suffering untold thousands of casualties, Putin shows no visible sign of stress.

In contrast with the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, when he denounced Ukraine and the West in bitter, angry speeches, his rhetoric is restrained. The 69-year-old appears calm, focused and fully in command of data and details.

While acknowledging the impact of Western sanctions, he tells Russians their economy will emerge stronger and more self-sufficient, while the West will suffer a boomerang effect from spiralling food and fuel prices.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

But as the war grinds on with no end in sight, Putin faces an increasing challenge to maintain the semblance of normality.

Economically, the situation will worsen as sanctions bite harder and Russia heads towards recession.

Militarily, Putin's forces have gradually advanced in eastern Ukraine but the United States and its allies are stepping up arms supplies to Kyiv, including a U.S. promise this week of advanced rocket systems.

Should Russia's offensive falter, Putin could be forced into declaring a full-scale mobilisation of reserves to bolster his depleted forces, Western defence experts say.

"This would involve more than a million people in Russia, and then of course it will be visible for those whose who have not yet realised that Russia is in a full war," said Gerhard Mangott, an Austrian academic who has met and observed Putin over many years.

That would be a hard sell to a Russian public which is mainly reliant on state media loyal to the Kremlin and has therefore been kept in ignorance of the scale of Russian setbacks and casualties.

Yet Russia is still not at that point, Mangott said, and Putin may draw some encouragement from signs of Western fatigue with the war. Divisions are emerging between Ukraine's most hawkish backers - the United States, Britain, Poland and the Baltic states - and a group of countries including Italy, France and Germany which are pressing to bring an end to the war.

"Putin is counting that the longer this war drags on, the more conflicts and frictions within the Western camp will appear," he said.

Meanwhile peace talks with Ukraine stalled weeks ago, and Putin shows absolutely no sign of seeking a diplomatic exit. "He still thinks there is a good military solution to this problem," said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at Crisis Group.

Putin preserves the option to claim victory at any point because his stated objectives - what he called the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine - "were always goals that you could declare accomplished because they were never clearly defined and were always somewhat ridiculous", Oliker said.

The words "war" and "Ukraine" were never spoken during Putin's 40-minute video encounter on Wednesday with the prolific families, including Vadim and Larisa Kadzayev with their 15 children from Beslan in the North Caucasus region.

Wearing their best dresses and suits, the families sat stiffly at tables laden with flowers and food as Putin called on them in turn to introduce themselves. On the same day, eight empty school buses pulled into the main square of Lviv in western Ukraine to serve as a reminder of 243 Ukrainian children killed since the start of Putin's invasion.

The closest he came to acknowledging the war was in a pair of references to the plight of children in Donbas and the "extraordinary situation" there.

Russia had many problems but that was always the case, he said as he wrapped up the online meeting. "Nothing unusual is actually happening here."

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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