Ukraine-Russia War Breaking News: Live Updates from Mariupol

With Russia’s military still struggling, Western officials and traumatized residents of Ukraine are watching with heightened concern Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9 – a celebration of the Soviet triumph over Germany. – which President Vladimir V. Putin could exploit as a grand stage to step up attacks and mobilize his citizens for all-out war.

While Russia has inflicted death and destruction across Ukraine and made some progress in the east and south over the past 10 weeks, fierce Ukrainian resistance, heavy weaponry supplied by the West and the Russian military incompetence robbed Mr. Putin of the quick victory he had initially seemed. having anticipated, including the initial goal of decapitating the government in Kyiv.

Now, however, with Russia about to be hit by a European Union oil embargo, and with VE Day just five days away, Mr Putin may see the need to shake up the West with further escalation. Concern is growing that Mr Putin will use the event, when he traditionally presides over a parade and delivers a militaristic speech, to go after perceived enemies of Russia and widen the scope of the conflict.

In a sign of those concerns, Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, predicted last week that Mr Putin would take the opportunity to redefine what the Russian leader called a “special military operation” into a war, calling to a massive mobilization of the Russian people.

Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Such a statement would present a new challenge to war-battered Ukraine, as well as to Washington and its NATO allies as they attempt to counter Russian aggression without directly becoming entangled in the conflict. However, the Kremlin on Wednesday denied that Putin would declare war on May 9, calling it “nonsense”, and Russian analysts noted that announcing a military plan could provoke a domestic backlash.

Yet the Russian hierarchy has also denied for months that it intended to invade Ukraine, only to do so on February 24. Thus, the conjecture about Mr. Putin’s intention on VE Day is only getting worse.

“That’s a question everyone is asking,” Valery Dzutsati, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas, said Wednesday, adding that the “short answer is that no one knows what is will take place on May 9th.

Professor Dzutsati said declaring mass mobilization or all-out war could prove deeply unpopular among Russians. He predicted that Mr Putin would take the “safest possible option” and point to territory Russia has already seized in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to declare a “preliminary victory”.

Preparations for May 9 are well underway in Russia, as the country prepares to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the Soviet army’s victory over the Nazis as it wages another war against what Mr Putin claims , wrongly, to be the modern-day Nazis who rule Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Russian state media reported that fighter jets and helicopters practiced flying in formations over Moscow’s Red Square – a show of military might that included eight MiG-29 jets flying below the shape of the letter “Z”, which has become an ubiquitous symbol of Russian Nationalism and support for the war.

Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Other warplanes flew over Moscow while releasing trails of white, blue and red – the colors of the Russian flag.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said on Wednesday that the May 9 military parades would take place in 28 Russian cities and involve around 65,000 people and more than 460 aircraft.

Ukraine has warned that Russia also plans to hold events on May 9 in occupied Ukrainian cities, including the devastated southern port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 civilians have been killed and those that remain struggle to survive without adequate food, warmth and water.

Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Russians were clearing Mariupol’s central streets of corpses and debris in a bid to make the city presentable as “the center of celebrations”.

Ukrainian civilians who have been hammered by weeks of Russian strikes are increasingly concerned that Russia could use VE Day to subject them to even deadlier attacks.

In the western city of Lviv, which lost power on Wednesday after Russian missiles hit power stations, Yurji Horal, 43, a government office official, said he planned to leave with his wife and young children to stay with relatives in a village about 40 miles away to escape what he feared was an extension of the war on May 9.

“I’m worried for them – and for myself,” he said. “A lot of people I know are talking about it.”

In years past, Mr Putin has used May 9 – a quasi-sacred holiday for Russians, as 27 million Soviets died in World War II – to mobilize the nation for the possibility of a new battle to come. .

Credit…Alexander Zemlianitchenko/Associated Press

When he addressed the nation from his rostrum in Red Square on May 9 last year, he warned that Russia’s enemies were once again deploying “much of the ideology of the Nazis “.

Now, with Russian state media describing the fight in Ukraine as the unfinished business of World War II, it seems almost certain that Mr Putin will use his May 9 speech to evoke the heroism of Soviet soldiers in an attempt to encourage the Russians to make new sacrifices. .

But mass mobilization – potentially involving military conscription and a ban on Russian men of military age leaving the country – could bring the reality of war back to much larger parts of Russian society, causing unrest.

For many Russians, the “special military operation” in Ukraine still looks like a distant conflict. Independent pollster Levada found last month that 39% of Russians pay little or no attention.

“When you watch it on TV, that’s one thing,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, a research body close to the Russian government, said in a phone interview from Moscow. “When you get notice from the enrollment office, that’s another thing. There would probably be some difficulty for the leaders to make such a decision.

Credit…Sergei Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr Kortunov predicted that the fighting in eastern Ukraine would eventually stop, at which point Russia and Ukraine could broker a deal – or rearm and regroup for a new stage of the war.

He noted that while some senior Russian officials and state television commentators have called for the destruction of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has been more vague recently in his war aims, at least in public comments.

Mr Kortunov said Mr Putin could still declare the mission accomplished once Russia captured most of the Donbass region. Russia has greatly expanded its control over this region since the start of the war, but Ukraine still holds several key towns and villages.

“If it all ends with Donbass, there would probably be a way to explain that this was always the plan,” Mr Kortunov said. “Putin left this option open for himself.”

With no resolution to the conflict in sight, the European Union on Wednesday took a major step aimed at weakening Putin’s ability to finance the war, proposing a total embargo on Russian oil. The measure, which is expected to be approved within days, would ban imports of Russian crude oil from almost the entire European Union for the next six months and ban refined petroleum products by the end of the year.

“Let’s be clear, it won’t be easy,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where the announcement was greeted with applause. “Some member states are heavily dependent on Russian oil. But we just have to work on it.

The European Union also pledged on Wednesday to provide additional military support to Moldova, a former Soviet republic on Ukraine’s southwestern border that Western officials say could be used by Russia as a launching pad for new attacks.

Security fears in Moldova grew last week as mysterious explosions rocked Transnistria, a Kremlin-backed breakaway region of the country where Russia has kept troops since 1992.

Although European officials said they would “significantly increase” military support for Moldova, providing additional military equipment, as well as instruments to counter disinformation and cyberattacks, they did not provide details.

The report was provided by Jane Arraf, Neil MacFarquhar, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk.

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