For decades, May 9 was a day of solidarity and shared triumph for Russia, Ukraine and the other countries that once made up the Soviet Union. But this year, Ukrainians will be watching how Moscow marks Victory Day with a sense of dread.
With Russia’s 10-week-old invasion of Ukraine largely frustrated by poor planning and fierce resistance, there are worries that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use his annual speech on Red Square in Moscow – where he will address soldiers and veterans gathered to mark the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – to announce some kind of new escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.
The annual military parade on Red Square usually includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, a display of nuclear might that will be particularly menacing at a time when tensions between Russia and the West are at their highest point since the Cuban missile crisis of 50 years ago.
Sergey Utkin, the head of strategic assessment at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said he expected the Kremlin would use May 9 to connect the Second World War triumph over the Nazis – which cost 24 million Soviet lives – to the current conflict. Moscow claims that it is fighting “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, though far-right groups have little influence in the country and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself is Jewish.
While Mr. Utkin predicted that Mr. Putin would not make any major announcements that would overshadow a day that is sacred to many Russians, officials in Britain and the United States have said they believe Mr. Putin could use Victory Day to formally declare war on Ukraine. The Kremlin has thus far insisted it is only conducting a “special military operation” against its neighbour. Ordering full mobilization could result in hundreds of thousands of Russians being called into military service.
There are also widespread fears that Monday will see a wave of missile strikes, or even the use of prohibited weapons of mass destruction, at targets around Ukraine. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed such predictions as “nonsense.”
Either general mobilization or the use of banned weapons would highlight how poorly Russia’s military has fared to date. A war that many predicted that Russia would win in a matter of days now looks likely to drag on for months, at least. Russia has already been forced to abandon an early attempt to capture Kyiv in order to focus its forces in eastern and southern Ukraine.
“Ukraine seems to be ready for whatever comes,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor of international relations at Odesa Mechnikov National University, which has been closed since the invasion began on Feb. 24. “If it is doubling down, proclaiming full mobilization and martial law, it will be harder for us, of course. But then most experts believe that they would not be able to bring reinforcements at all or bring them in quickly. Either way the flow of weapons to Ukraine should go on. This seems to be a critical moment. The use of WMD on their part would be horrible, of course, if it comes to this.”
In addition to the parade in Moscow, there are signs that the Kremlin might be planning some kind of May 9 celebration in the shattered Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which is largely under Russian control. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent host on Russian state television, and Sergei Kiriyenko, a top aide to Mr. Putin, both visited Mariupol in recent days, and Ukrainian intelligence said last week that Russian troops were clearing corpses and rubble from the streets, possibly in preparation to hold a May 9 parade in the city.
But even in Mariupol, where more than 20,000 people are believed to have been killed since the war began, Russia has not been able to completely fulfill its military objectives. A unit of Ukrainian fighters has been holed up in the city’s sprawling Azovstal steel factory for weeks, defying Russia’s attempts to declare even a limited victory on May 9.
“The Russians are desperately trying to make some goals, any goals to celebrate this day, but they will not have success,” Illia Samoilenko, a lieutenant in the Azov Battalion still defending the plant, said Sunday in a news conference broadcast online from somewhere in the tunnels beneath the Azovstal plant.
Lt. Samoilenko was critical of the Ukrainian government and military for not trying harder to rescue the trapped defenders of the steel factory – which he said included hundreds of wounded fighters – but said his unit would fight on. “Nobody expected we would last for so long, but against all odds and despite everything, we’re still holding, we’re still lasting.”
Lt. Samoilenko cast doubt on the Ukrainian government’s claim that all civilians had been evacuated from Azovstal, saying that it was impossible even for him to know how many people were still trapped in other parts of the factory.
On Sunday, Mr. Zelensky released a video in which he said the world had failed to honour the vow of “never again” that was made at the end of the Second World War.
“Darkness has returned to Ukraine decades after World War II. … The evil has returned,” Mr. Zelensky said, standing in front of a destroyed apartment block in the town of Borodyanka, outside Kyiv, where hundreds of people were killed during a month-long Russian occupation earlier in the war. “In a different form, under different slogans, but for the same purpose.”
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