Zaporizhzhia (Ukraine): With no major new battlefield successes to boast about, Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his country's biggest patriotic holiday without even uttering the word “Ukraine."
The Russian leader oversaw a Victory Day parade Monday 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.
Many Western analysts had expected Putin to use the holiday to trumpet some kind of victory in Ukraine or announce an escalation, but he did neither. Instead, he sought to justify the war again as a necessary response to what he portrayed as a hostile Ukraine.
“The danger was rising by the day,” Putin said. “Russia has given a preemptive response to aggression. It was forced, timely, and the only correct decision.”
With the conflict grinding through its 11th week, he steered clear of battlefield specifics, failing to mention the potentially pivotal battle for the vital southern port of Mariupol.
Meanwhile, on the ground, intense fighting raged in Ukraine's east. In the south, the vital Black Sea port of Odesa came under repeated missile attack. And Russian forces sought to end the resistance of Ukrainian defenders making their last stand at a steel plant in Mariupol.
One of the Ukrainian fighters holding out at the steel plant said they were still defending the city.
Valeri Paditel, who heads the border guards in the Donetsk region, said the fighters were “doing everything to make those who defend the city in the future proud.”
Putin has long bristled at NATO's creep eastward into former Soviet republics. Ukraine and its Western allies have denied the country 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 consider their finest hour: the triumph over Hitler. 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 analysts had suggested Putin might use his holiday speech to present the Russian people with a 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. AP