Defiant Putin Leads Russia's Victory Day Parade as Troops Eye Ukraine's Mariupol

In his Victory Day speech, Putin said Russian soldiers are fighting to 'liberate' the Donbas region, as Moscow hopes to topple Mariupol's last stronghold

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on Monday.Credit: MIKHAIL METZEL - AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his country's biggest patriotic holiday Monday to again justify his war in Ukraine but did not declare even a limited victory or signal where the conflict is headed, as his forces pressed their offensive with few signs of progress.

The Russian leader gave a speech commemorating Victory Day in Moscow, as his troops continue their assault on Ukraine, targeting the port city of Mariupol.

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But his much-anticipated speech offered no new insights into how he intends to salvage the grinding war, and he instead stuck to allegations that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia, even though Moscow’s nuclear-armed forces are far superior in number and firepower.

Smoke rises above the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol, in May.Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/ REUTERS

“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.”

He steered clear of battlefield specifics, failing to mention the potentially pivotal battle for the vital southern port of Mariupol and not even uttering the word “Ukraine.”

Addressing massed ranks of service personnel on Red Square, he directly addressed soldiers fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which Russia has pledged to "liberate" from Kyiv's control.

"You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War Two. So that there is no place in the world for executioners, punishers and Nazis," he said.

On the ground, meanwhile, intense fighting raged in Ukraine's east, the vital Black Sea port of Odesa in the south came under bombardment again, and Russian forces sought to finish off the estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders making their last stand at a steel plant in Mariupol.

The mill is the only part of the city not overtaken by the invaders, and its defeat would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Progress in the east, though, has been slow-going, and many analysts had suggested Putin might use his speech to declare some sort of victory – potentially in Mariupol – to counter discontent over Russia's heavy casualties and the punishing effects of Western sanctions at home.

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.

Neither step was announced.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that worsening attacks could be linked to Victory Day, which marks Russia’s greatest triumph, over Nazi Germany in 1945. Russian President Vladimir Putin may want to proclaim a win in Ukraine when he addresses troops parading on Red Square.

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“They have nothing to celebrate,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said of the Russians, speaking on CNN. “They have not succeeded in defeating the Ukrainians. They have not succeeded in dividing the world or dividing NATO. And they have only succeeded in isolating themselves internationally and becoming a pariah state around the globe.”

Though fighting continues on multiple fronts, Russia is closest to victory in Mariupol.

Ukrainian fighters in the steel mill have rejected deadlines set by the Russians for laying down their arms even as attacks continued by warplanes, artillery and tanks.

“We are under constant shelling,” said Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, a unit holding the steel mill.

Lt. Illya Samoilenko, another member of the Azov Regiment, said there were a couple of hundred wounded soldiers at the plant but declined to reveal how many able-bodied fighters remained. He said fighters didn’t have lifesaving equipment and had to dig by hand to free people from bunkers that had collapsed under the shelling.

“Surrender for us is unacceptable because we cannot grant such a gift to the enemy,” Samoilenko said.

The last of the civilians taking shelter with fighters at the plant were evacuated Saturday. They arrived Sunday night in Zaporizhzhia, the first major Ukrainian city beyond the front lines, and spoke of constant shelling, dwindling food, ubiquitous mold — and using hand sanitizer for cooking fuel.

As Victory Day neared and the spotlight turned to Putin, Western leaders showed new signs of support for Ukraine.

The Group of Seven industrial democracies pledged to ban or phase out imports of Russian oil. The G-7 consists of the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan.

The United States also announced new sanctions against Russia, cutting off Western advertising from Russia’s three biggest TV stations, banning U.S. accounting and consulting firms from providing services, and cutting off Russia’s industrial sector from wood products, industrial engines, boilers and bulldozers.

The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, posted a picture of herself at the American Embassy, and described plans for the eventual U.S. return to the Ukrainian capital after Moscow’s forces abandoned their effort to storm Kyiv weeks ago and began focusing on the capture of the Donbas.

Zelenskyy released a video address marking the day of the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago, drawing parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the evils of Nazism. The black-and-white footage showed Zelenskyy standing in front of a ruined apartment block in Borodyanka, a Kyiv suburb.

Zelenskyy said that generations of Ukrainians understood the significance of the words “Never again,” a phrase often used as a vow not to allow a repeat of the horrors of the Holocaust.

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