As Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his country’s biggest patriotic holiday Monday without a major new battlefield success in Ukraine to boast of, as the war ground on through its 11th week with the Kremlin's forces making little or no progress in their offensive.
The Russian leader oversaw a Victory Day parade on Moscow's Red Square, watching as troops marched in formation and military hardware rolled past in a celebration of the Soviet Union's role in the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany.
Speaking at a military parade on Red Square marking the World War II victory over the Nazis, Putin drew parallels between the Red Army’s fighting against the Nazi troops and the Russian forces’ action in Ukraine.
While lambasting the West, Putin gave no indication of a shift in strategies or made any indication that he was going to declare a broad mobilization, as some in Ukraine and the West have feared.
Addressing the phalanxes of elite Russian troops filling Red Square, Putin said the campaign in Ukraine was a necessary move to avert what he described as “a threat that was absolutely unacceptable to us (that) has been methodically created next to our borders."
“The danger was rising by the day,” he claimed, adding that “Russia has given a preemptive response to an aggression” in what he described as a “forced, timely and the only correct decision by a sovereign, powerful and independent country.”
The Russian leader has repeatedly accused Ukraine of harboring aggressive intentions, with support from the U.S. and its allies — claims Ukrainian and Western officials have denied.
Putin again scolded the West for failing to heed Russian demands for security guarantees and a rollback to NATO’s expansion, arguing that it left Moscow no other choice but to launch an action in Ukraine.
The Russian leader emphasized that the Russian troops were fighting for the country’s security in Ukraine and called a minute of silence to honor the soldiers who fell in combat. Putin noted that some of the troops taking part in the parade previously have fought in Ukraine.
He said that the troops in Ukraine have been “fighting for the Motherland, so that no one will forget the lessons of World War II and there will be no place in the world for hangmen, executioners and the Nazis.”
The Victory Day that Russia marks on May 9 is the country's most important holiday, celebrated with military parades and fireworks across the county.
As part of celebrations later in the day, Putin also joined demonstrators who carried portraits of their relatives who fought in World War II in the so-called Immortal Regiment march, walking with a photo of his father who fought the Nazis in the siege of Leningrad.
The Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people in World War II, which it calls the Great Patriotic War. The conflict, which devastated the country and caused enormous suffering, has left a deep scar in the national psyche.
Some in Ukraine and the West expected Putin to use his speech at the parade to switch from describing the Russian action in Ukraine that the Russian officials have called the “special military operation” to calling it a war.
While Western analysts in recent weeks had widely expected Putin to use the holiday to trumpet some kind of victory in Ukraine or perhaps announce a mass mobilization, he did neither. Instead he sought to justify the war again as a necessary response to what he falsely portrayed as a hostile Ukraine.
He steered clear of battlefield specifics, failing to mention the potentially pivotal battle for the vital southern port of Mariupol and not even uttering the word “Ukraine.”
On the ground, meanwhile, intense fighting raged in Ukraine's east, the vital Black Sea port of Odesa in the south came under repeated missile attack, and Russian forces sought to finish off the Ukrainian defenders making their last stand at a steel plant in Mariupol.
Putin has long bristled at NATO’s creep eastward into former Soviet republics, and argued Monday that Russia had to invade Ukraine before an “inevitable” clash. Ukrainian leaders and their Western backers have denied that Kyiv or NATO posed any threat.
As he has done all along, Putin falsely portrayed the fighting as a battle against Nazism, thereby linking the war to what many Russians regard as their finest hour: the triumph over Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in what Russia refers to as the Great Patriotic War.
After unexpectedly fierce resistance forced the Kremlin to abandon its effort to storm Kyiv over a month ago, Moscow's forces have concentrated on capturing the Donbas, Ukraine's eastern industrial region.
But the fighting there has been a back-and-forth, village-by-village slog, and many analysts had suggested Putin might use his holiday speech to present the Russian people with some kind of victory amid discontent over the country's heavy casualties and the punishing effects of Western sanctions.
Others suggested he might declare the fighting a war, not just a “special military operation,” and order a nationwide mobilization, with a call-up of reserves, to replenish the depleted ranks for an extended conflict.
In the end, he gave no signal as to where the war is headed or how he might intend to salvage it. Specifically, he left unanswered the question of whether or how Russia will marshal more forces for a continuing war.
“Without concrete steps to build a new force, Russia can’t fight a long war, and the clock starts ticking on the failure of their army in Ukraine,” tweeted Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Nigel Gould Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus, said: “Russia has not won this war. It’s starting to lose it.”
He said unless the Russia has a major breakthrough, “the balance of advantages will shift steadily in favor of Ukraine, especially as Ukraine gets access to growing volumes of increasingly sophisticated Western military equipment.”
Despite Russia's efforts to crack down on dissent, antiwar sentiment has seeped through. A few scattered protesters were detained around the country on Victory Day, and editors at one pro-Kremlin media outlet revolted by briefly publishing a few dozen stories criticizing Putin and the invasion.
In Warsaw, antiwar protesters splattered Russia’s ambassador to Poland with what appeared to be red paint as he arrived at a cemetery to pay respects to Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.
As Putin laid a wreath in Moscow, air raid sirens echoed again in the Ukrainian capital. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared in his own Victory Day address that his country would eventually defeat the Russians.
“Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine,” he said in a video. He added: "We are fighting for freedom, for our children, and therefore we will win.”
Russia has about 97 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, largely in the east and the south, a slight increase over last week, according to a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon's assessment. Each unit has roughly 1,000 troops, according to the Pentagon.
The official said that overall, the Russian effort in the Donbas hasn’t achieved any significant progress in recent days and continues to face stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian military warned of a high probability of missile strikes around the holiday, and some cities imposed curfews or warned people not to gather in public places.
More than 60 people were feared dead over the weekend after Russian bombardment flattened a Ukrainian school being used as a shelter in the eastern village of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian officials said.
Russia is perhaps closest to a victory in Mariupol. The U.S. official said roughly 2,000 Russian forces were around Mariupol, and the city was being pounded by airstrikes. As many as 2,000 Ukrainian defenders were believed to be holding out at the steel plant, the city's last stronghold of resistance.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas. It would also give the Kremlin a badly needed success.
Odesa, too, has increasingly come under bombardment in recent days. Ukrainian officials said came under repeated fire from missiles Monday. There were no immediate reports of any casualties, and authorities did not say what struck.
The war in the country long known as the “breadbasket of Europe” has disrupted global food supplies.
“I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, lamented in a tweet after a visit to Odesa. “This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian war and blockade of Black sea ports. Causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries."
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.