Dmitry Lovtsky/Associated Press
MOSCOW — Russians will celebrate on Monday Victory Day, an annual event commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, which has grown in intrigue and importance this year due to Russia’s fighting in Ukraine.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the May 9 event grew in size and political importance, with a Soviet-style military parade on Moscow’s Red Square and a presidential address.
This year’s Victory Day comes amid widespread speculation in Russia and the West that Putin is eager to declare at least a symbolic victory in Ukraine. A big question is whether — or how — Putin is trying to inspire Russians to combine past Soviet glory and sacrifice with a new call to fight what he calls a “neo-Nazi” regime in Ukraine.
The Kremlin insists that what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine is proceeding “as planned”. Two months later, Western security officials said Moscow had been working hard to achieve its goals. With few outright victories to point to, some Russians worry that Putin may seize the opportunity to declare a national mobilization and formally declare war, not only against Ukraine, but possibly the rest of the West as well.
Russia rushes to take Mariupol
A clue to the Kremlin’s search for victory may lie in a visit last week by senior official Sergei Kiriyenko to the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. A small part of Ukrainian resistance remains in the local steel mill, but Putin has officially declared Russian control of Mariupol, sparking an influx of Russian state media into the city.
In front of the camera, Putin’s deputy chief of staff Kiriyenko unveiled a statue of an old Ukrainian woman, which Russian state media turned into a symbol of Ukraine’s support for the Russian army. The woman, known as Babushka Anya, was apparently filmed by Ukrainian soldiers as she greeted them with a Soviet flag, mistakenly believing they were Russian. In the video, she refuses food from the army after realizing it is Ukrainian.
Kiriyenko declared that she was a “living symbol for generations and for the ongoing struggle against Nazism and fascism,” echoing Putin’s claim that Russian troops had “denazified” the country in Ukraine. “She has become the grandmother of all Donbass and the whole of Russia.”
Kiriyenko’s appearance in Mariupol comes as Russian news reports say Kremlin advisers — who typically oversee domestic politics — are tasked with politically integrating Ukrainian soil as it falls to Russian troops.
Putin recognized the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk hours before Russia decided to send troops to Ukraine in February. At the time, Putin described the move as a humanitarian mission to protect Russian-speaking people in the region. Western intelligence agencies say the Kremlin may now seek to annex the territories as a possible prize.
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Kremlin warns of possible wider conflict
Russia’s focus on Ukraine in the eastern Donbas region has slowed recently as the United States and European allies have increased weapons and other support for Ukraine.
The Russian military has targeted the shipments as the Kremlin escalated warnings and criticism, arguing that military aid could lead to a military confrontation between Russia and NATO powers.
To underscore that message, Russia on Wednesday conducted exercises simulating a tactical nuclear strike in Kaliningrad, its western enclave on the border with the European Union.
Putin has previously warned of “lightning” retaliation if the West intervenes directly in the Ukrainian conflict – the latest in a pattern of exaggerated rhetoric that has fueled a campaign that Putin is seeking to build a public consensus for the wider war. theory. When asked if Putin would formally declare war on Ukraine on May 9, a Kremlin spokesman called the idea “nonsense”.
Military parade preparations take place in Moscow
In recent days, the Russian armed forces have been rehearsing for the military parade on Red Square, which has become a revival of Putin-era Soviet military traditions.
Every year on May 9, Russians celebrate the end of what they called the Great Patriotic War in 1945, in which more than 20 million Soviet citizens died at home and abroad. Celebrations and parades are held in dozens of Russian cities.
Moscow’s military display on Monday may be smaller than in previous years to reflect the fighting in Ukraine, according to a statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Still, Shoigu said the parade would include 11,000 soldiers and showcase 77 aircraft and 131 cars, including Russia’s latest rocket launchers.
The Russian Air Force has pledged to celebrate in the Z formation – the letter used to honor Russian troops in Ukraine. The letter Z has also become a controversial symbol, both supporting the Russian military and terrorizing disparate voices at home.
A Soviet-era aircraft dubbed the “Flying Kremlin” will also be unveiled. This is an air presidential command center for use in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia.
Meanwhile, below, there will be Putin and his speech – the president’s staunchest supporters are sure their leaders will find the right wording.
“Victory will come, but not until we defeat all the Nazis in Ukraine,” said Andrei, a 60-year-old Red Square tour guide who worries about giving his full name to Western journalists.
“Putin is a smart guy,” he added, as fighter jets flew overhead in parade formation. “He’s not going to announce anything without a real victory.”
Charles Maines reported from Moscow; Alina Selyukh contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.