By The Associated Press
The invasion of Ukraine means fewer Russian tanks and other military equipment will rumble through Moscow’s Red Square on Monday, when the country marks its victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. The patriotic fervor associated with the holy holiday, however, may be stronger than ever.
This year’s VE Day will not just honor a conflict that ended 77 years ago. Many Russians will think of the thousands of soldiers fighting in neighboring Ukraine. Signs of support for the military have mushroomed across the country since the invasion began on February 24, with the letter “Z” appearing on billboards and signs in streets and subways. , on television and on social networks.
The Kremlin has refused to call the fighting in Ukraine a “war”, calling it a “special military operation” instead. Some observers believe President Vladimir Putin could use the vacation to eventually declare the operation a war to bolster Russia’s national commitment to the effort.
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The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II, which it calls the Great Patriotic War. The conflict, which devastated cities and countryside, caused enormous suffering and left a deep scar in the national psyche.
Victory Day is a rare event in the nation’s post-Soviet history that is revered by all political players, and the Kremlin has used this sentiment to encourage patriotic pride and highlight Russia’s role as a world power.
Annual celebrations include a massive military parade in Red Square showcasing the latest weaponry, from tanks to fighter jets to nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
This year, the range of weapons to be displayed in the parade has been significantly reduced compared to last year, apparently reflecting the military’s strong commitment to Ukraine.
In ordering the invasion, Putin said it was aimed at the ‘demilitarization’ of Ukraine to eliminate a perceived military threat against Russia by ‘neo-Nazis’ – rhetoric condemned by Ukraine and the West as a fictional cover for a brutal act of aggression.
In an attempt to substantiate this claim, Putin and his officials pointed to Ukrainian right-wing groups’ adulation of nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, who sided with the Nazis during World War II and their perceived use of symbols of Nazi units. .
The rhetoric has also been used by the Kremlin to try to build public support for the war amid heavy losses of troops and equipment and massive economic damage from Western sanctions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, derided the Kremlin’s “denazification” claim. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov retaliated by drawing a parallel between Zelensky and Adolf Hitler – a statement that drew sharp criticism from Israel.
Some in Ukraine and the West expected Putin to try to seek quick wins ahead of the May 9 holiday in a possible attempt to portray it as a decisive victory and use it as an exit from what looks like more in addition to a disastrous quagmire bleeding Russia’s resources and threatening its stability.
After a failed attempt to storm kyiv and other major cities in northern Ukraine early in the war, the Kremlin focused on the eastern industrial heartland known as Donbass, where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since 2014. This conflict erupted weeks after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
The Russian military has rearmed and resupplied its forces withdrawn from kyiv and moved them to Donbass in an apparent attempt to surround and destroy the most capable and seasoned Ukrainian troops concentrated there.
But this offensive in the east ran into strong Ukrainian defenses and made only incremental advances, dashing the Kremlin’s hopes of a quick victory. Significant gains seem virtually impossible before May 9.
In an interview this week, Lavrov said: “Our army is not going to artificially tie its action to any date, including Victory Day.”
Some Russian hardliners criticized the Kremlin for using only limited force and called for a nationwide mobilization effort. Some Western officials and observers believe Putin could use May 9 to officially declare war and announce a full mobilization of the population to increase the number of troops for an offensive.
“He drove around, setting the stage so he could say, ‘Listen, it’s now a war against the Nazis, and what I need is more people,'” the secretary said. British Defence, Ben Wallace, on LBC radio last week.
Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov issued a similar warning on Monday, alleging that Russia had secretly begun preparations for a large mobilization.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the allegations “nonsense”.
Russian authorities claimed that only volunteer contract soldiers fought in Ukraine, although many conscripts were taken prisoner in the early days of the war.
The Russian army has about 1 million servicemen, 400,000 of them under contract, including 147,000 in the ground forces. Western officials estimated the initial strength of the Russian invasion force at around 180,000.
The army acknowledged losing 1,351 troops as of March 25 and has not updated its casualty count since then. Western officials said Russian casualties were much heavier and estimated that up to a quarter of Moscow’s initial attack force was rendered combat-unfit.
If the war drags on, current Russian troop numbers in Ukraine may be insufficient to sustain operations, forcing the Kremlin to rely on poorly trained conscripts or call up reservists.
The Kremlin faces a stark choice between trying to win the war with limited force or trying to bolster its troops in Ukraine with recruits and reserves, a decision that could spark public outrage and potentially destabilize the political situation.
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