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With international pressure mounting and his invasion of Ukraine failing to make significant advances, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a strident speech Monday at an annual military parade in Moscow, accusing the U.S. and the West of provoking the conflict and comparing it to the Soviet Union's fight against Nazi Germany in World War II.
But the Russian leader stopped short of using the occasion — known as Victory Day to mark the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s forces 77 years ago — to declare an all-out war with Ukraine, as some analysts feared he would. Russia still refers to the invasion as a “special military operation,” which does not require a full national mobilization of resources for war.
Standing in front of decorated veterans in Red Square, Putin characterized Russia as having had no choice but to strike back against the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the West’s refusal to provide Moscow with security guarantees.
“The danger was rising by the day,” Putin said. “Russia has given a preemptive response to an aggression.”
The parade, which included a display of military equipment, marching soldiers and a martial band, came as Western nations imposed more sanctions on Russia’s hobbled economy and moved to boost Ukraine's defenses.
President Biden signed a law designed to speed up shipments of arms to Ukraine. Known as the Lend-Lease Act, it dates back to World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to make the United States the “arsenal of democracy.”
Also Monday, U.S. Commerce Department said it was suspending a 25% tax on steel imported from Ukraine — which was imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration — to help the country's beleaguered economy.
Those efforts come as the U.S. Congress is poised to approve $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, much more than the $33 billion package Biden requested.
In counter-programming of sorts to the Kremlin's display, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared that his nation would emerge victorious from the fight against its behemoth neighbor.
“We are fighting for our children’s freedom and therefore we will win,” Zelensky said in a video address Monday while striding in daylight down a major Kyiv thoroughfare, with stately buildings and antitank “hedgehogs” fashioned from fused I-beams visible in the background. “Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone won’t have any.”
Ukrainian military officials and Western analysts said that Russia's offensive in the eastern industrial heartland appeared stalled. At the same time, Russian forces have continued to inflict deadly harm on civilians.
A day after Zelensky reported that about 60 civilians were killed in the weekend bombing of a school in the village of Bilohorivka, in contested Luhansk province in the east, air-raid alerts sounded in cities and towns across the country Monday.
Officials pleaded with the public to take heed and find shelter as the Ukrainian military warned of a “high probability” of missile strikes throughout the country as Russia used Victory Day as an impetus for a reinvigorated assault.
Throughout the 10-week-old Russian offensive, schools — which often serve as bomb shelters — have been vulnerable to attack. Ukrainian officials said that in the course of the war, more than 1,600 educational institutions had been damaged by bombardment, 126 of them destroyed.
Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, was among officials who appealed for special caution Monday, citing the possibility of more “terrible” events.
“Today we do not know what to expect from the enemy,” Haidai wrote on Telegram. “Please go out onto the street as little as possible. Stay in shelters.”
Haidai said shelling in the village of Shypylivka the day before had left 11 people trapped under the rubble of a two-story building.
In Kyiv’s city center, where traffic was light but a few establishments remained open, IT worker Tanya Melnyk said she hadn’t been taking any special precautions in connection with the Russian holiday. Still, she felt on edge.
“It’s constant stress anyway,” the 34-year-old said. “Maybe I’m staying home more during these few days, but I’m not sure it makes me feel any safer.”
Putin was more measured in his speech than some had expected, perhaps out of wariness that either declaring victory in Ukraine or escalating the conflict would send the wrong message.
Allyson Edwards, an expert on Russian militarism at Britain’s University of Warwick, said the speech was purposefully “underwhelming” to give him more flexibility in handling the war, which has dragged on far longer than he probably thought it would and forced him to re-strategize, such as withdrawing troops from around Kyiv.
“Stating victory would make people question, why is the special military operation still happening then?" she said. "And war mobilization would show Putin's failure to be able to bring about victory within the confines of the special military operation. He's keeping it vague, justifying his goals along the lines of Western humiliation of Russia, notions that NATO was planning a punitive operation in Donbas and the duty of Russia to fight Nazism as their great-grandfathers did in the 1940s.”
Putin said Russian soldiers in Ukraine were “fighting for the motherland, so that no one will forget the lessons of World War II and there will be no place in the world for hangmen, executioners and the Nazis.”
Moscow falsely insists that Ukraine's leadership is riddled with neo-Nazis — even though Zelensky is Jewish — who are intent on cleansing the country of ethnic Russians, particularly in the eastern region of Donbas. Putin referred to the area as part of Russia's "historic lands," in keeping with his embrace of a "Greater Russia" ideology encompassing much of the former Soviet Union's territory.
In Warsaw, Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, was doused with what appeared to be red paint thrown by protesters as he visited a cemetery to honor Soviet soldiers who died during World War II. The protesters carried Ukrainian flags and were also covered in red coloring to symbolize those who have died at the hands of Russian forces.
Meanwhile, all indications suggested that the front lines of the war remained mostly static.
The Ukrainian military said in a morning operational report that it had repelled half a dozen attacks in the previous 24 hours in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two provinces making up the Donbas region that Russia is trying to overrun completely.
Ukrainian forces pressed ahead with a counteroffensive outside the northeastern city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border, the military said. That push has been forcing Moscow to divert troops from elsewhere, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in its latest battlefield assessment.
Ukrainian military pressure has been bolstered by growing Western diplomatic support.
On Monday, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, became the latest Western dignitary to travel to Ukraine, touring the historic city of Odesa, which has come under increasing fire from Russian forces. The city is home to a commercially vital port on the Black Sea from which Ukraine dispatches much of its grain — exports that countries the world over rely upon.
"I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export," Michel wrote on Twitter. "This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian war and blockade of Black sea ports. Causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries. We need a global response."
The Commerce Department's suspension of the import tax on Ukrainian steel was aimed at reactivating one of the country's most important industries.
Some of Ukraine's biggest steel-producing communities have been hard hit by the war, including Mariupol, where a small regiment of Ukrainian fighters has been holed up in tunnels beneath a steel plant that has faced regular bombardments from Russia.
“We can’t just admire the fortitude and spirit of the Ukrainian people — we need to have their backs and support one of the most important industries to Ukraine’s economic well-being,” Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo said Monday. “For steel mills to continue as an economic lifeline for the people of Ukraine, they must be able to export their steel.’’
Michel's trip to Ukraine followed visits Sunday by First Lady Jill Biden to a western Ukrainian town near the border with Slovakia and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Kyiv.
On the same day, the Group of 7 top industrialized countries — the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Italy — announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russia's industrial sector, state-controlled media, and Russian and Belarusian finance executives from major banks, including Russia's Gazprombank.
King reported from Kyiv, Pierson from Singapore and Linthicum from Mexico City. Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.