By ELENA BECATOROS and JON GAMBRELL Associated Press
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin used a major patriotic holiday Monday to again justify his war in Ukraine but did not declare even a limited victory or signal where the conflict was headed, as his forces pressed their offensive with few signs of significant progress.
The Russian leader oversaw a Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, with troops marching in formation, military hardware on display, and a brass band blaring to mark the Soviet Union’s role in the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany.
But his much-anticipated speech offered no new insights into how he intended to salvage the grinding war — and instead stuck to allegations that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia, even though Moscow’s nuclear-armed forces are far superior in numbers and firepower. He steered clear of battlefield specifics — failing to mention the potentially pivotal battle for the vital port of Mariupol or even uttering the word “Ukraine.”
Putin has long bristled about NATO’s gradual creep eastward, including into former Soviet republics, and sought to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before an “inevitable” clash. Ukrainian leaders and their Western backers have rejected claims that Kyiv or NATO posed any threat to Russia — but tensions could rise further if Sweden and Finland decide to join the Western alliance, as support for that increases in both countries.
“The danger was rising by the day,” Putin said. “Russia has given a pre-emptive response to aggression. It was forced, timely and the only correct decision.”
He also sought to portray the current battle for the eastern region of the Donbas — Moscow’s focus after its early failure to sweep across Ukraine and overrun the capital — as a fight on “historic lands” of Russia, part of his wider effort to deny Ukraine’s own thousand-year history. But even in that region, where some thought Russia would finally see some decisive victories, progress has been slow going.
Many analysts had suggested Putin might use his speech to declare some sort of limited victory — potentially in Mariupol — as he looks for an exit from the conflict that has unleashed punishing sanctions from the West and strained Russia’s resources. Others suggested he might order a nationwide mobilization to beef up the depleted ranks for an extended conflict. Neither was forthcoming.
Critics said the speech skirted some uncomfortable realities that Putin is facing: With the campaign in Ukraine faltering, he has not asked Russians to accept sacrifices necessary to weather a squeeze of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. He also left unanswered the looming question of whether Russia will mobilize more forces in the face of significant losses.
“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.
As Putin laid a wreath in Moscow, air raid sirens echoed again in Kyiv, 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 released to mark the holiday. “We have never fought against anyone. We always fight for ourselves. … We are fighting for freedom, for our children, and therefore we will win.”
But the Ukrainian military’s General Staff warned Monday of a high probability of missile strikes on the holiday, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily assessment Russian forces could increasingly subject Ukrainian towns and cities to “intense and indiscriminate bombardments with little or no regard for civilian casualties” as they run short of precision-guided munitions.
In fact, more than 60 people were feared dead after a Russian bomb flattened a Ukrainian school being used as a shelter in Bilohorivka, an eastern village, Ukrainian officials said.
In a sign the anti-Russian backlash in Europe, protesters threw what appeared to be red paint at Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, as he arrived at a cemetery in Warsaw to pay respects to Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.
With the war now in its 11th week, battles were being waged on multiple fronts, but Russia was perhaps closest to victory in Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters are making a last stand at a sprawling steel mill in a battle that has highlighted some of the worst suffering of the war.
The complete capture of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, and free troops up for fighting elsewhere in the Donbas. The fall of the city would also provide a much-needed symbolic victory for Russia.
Russian forces pounded away over the weekend at the plant, where as many as 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are estimated to be holding out.
“We are under constant shelling,” said Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, which held the mill.
For weeks, hundreds of civilians also took shelter with the fighters at the plant, but Ukrainian and Russian officials said the last were evacuated Saturday. In a convoy led by the United Nations and international Red Cross, they arrived Sunday night in Zaporizhzhia, the first major Ukrainian city beyond the frontlines. They spoke of constant shelling, dwindling food, ubiquitous mold — and using hand sanitizer for cooking fuel.
The Ukrainian military warned Russian troops were seizing “personal documents from the local population without good reason” in parts of the Zaporizhzhia region that they controlled — allegedly as a way to force residents to join in Victory Day commemorations.
With Russia’s offensive now focused on the Donbas in the east and some areas of southern Ukraine, the Black Sea port of Odesa has increasingly come under bombardment recently. Ukrainian officials said Russia fired four cruise missiles targeting the southern city Monday from Crimea. It said no civilians were wounded in the attack, but did not elaborate on what was struck.
“The enemy continues to destroy the infrastructure of the region and exert psychological pressure on the civilian population,” the command said.
Hours later, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced that he had visited the city — the latest in a series of high-profile visits to Ukraine.
Beyond the thousands killed in Ukraine and the millions forced from their homes, the war in a crucial grain producer disrupts food supplies in places as diverse as Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Unshipped wheat and other foodstuffs have piled up in idle ports.
“I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export,” tweeted Michel about his 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.”