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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House, in Washington, on March 9, 2020.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump will not be going to Moscow for Victory Day celebrations on May 9, the White House announced Tuesday in a disappointment for the Kremlin.

The White House confirmed that Trump has declined the Kremlin invitation to attend Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on the 75th anniversary of World War II victory – the nation’s most important holiday.

Trump said last year he appreciated the invitation, but wasn’t sure if he could go as the celebration falls “right in the middle of political season.”

“Via diplomatic channels, we have received information that the (U.S.) president will not be coming,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday, adding that it remains unclear who will represent the U.S. on the Victory Day in Moscow.

In an interview with the state-run Tass news agency, a part of which was released Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be “a mistake” for world leaders not to attend the Victory Day celebrations this year.

“I think that, concerning former members of the anti-Hitler alliance, the right thing to do would be to attend, from both a domestic political stance and a moral one,” Putin said. “We look forward to seeing them and we will be glad if they come. If not, well, that’s their choice. But I think that would be a mistake for them.”

Since Soviet times, Victory Day has been the nation’s most revered holiday, reflecting enormous human losses and sacrifice in the war. Russian officials have put the nation’s World War II death toll at 27 million, and some historians believe it could be higher.

The Red Square parade is set to involve 14,000 troops and 300 military vehicles in a massive show of Russian military might.

White House officials and Trump allies feared that the trip to Moscow in an election year could be politically damaging. While they insisted that Trump has been tough on Russia, deploying new sanctions, they believed that a visit to the country by Trump – which would have been a first since he took office – could play into Democrats’ charges that the president has not been forceful enough in condemning Russian election interference and its invasion of Ukraine.

For Putin, the Red Square parade offers a chance to have global leaders pay homage to Russia for its role in defeating the Nazis. Western leaders’ attendance of the celebrations would mark a major diplomatic coup for the Russian leader.

Russia-West ties have plunged to post-Cold War lows after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. and the European Union have slapped Russia with several rounds of sanctions that have limited its access to international financial markets and cut the flow of Western energy and defence technologies. Winning a respite from the penalties has been a top priority for the Kremlin.

While a quick lifting of the sanctions appears unlikely, Western leaders’ presence at the Kremlin parade could provide momentum for mending ties.

Putin already has scored a strong point when French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to attend the Moscow festivities.

Since last year, Macron has spoken repeatedly about the need to re-engage Russia to prevent it from forming an alliance with China. In December, Macron hosted Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to discuss a peace settlement for eastern Ukraine.

It wasn’t clear if Merkel would also attend the Victory Day celebrations. In a diplomatic ruse, she visited Moscow a day after the 2015 Victory Day, shunning the parade and laying flowers at the Unknown Soldier’s tomb.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hasn’t said whether he plans to attend. Russia-British ties, which already had been frayed by the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and other issues, plummeted further over the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. The Kremlin has staunchly denied any official connection to the attack.

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