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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.
"Without concrete steps to build a new force, Russia can't fight a long war, and the clock starts ticking on the failure of their army in Ukraine," tweeted Phillips P. O'Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Nigel Gould Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus, said: "Russia has not won this war. It's starting to lose it."
He said that unless Russia has a major breakthrough, "the balance of advantages will shift steadily in favor of Ukraine, especially as Ukraine gets access to growing volumes of increasingly sophisticated Western military equipment."
Despite Russia's crackdown on dissent, antiwar sentiment has seeped through. Dozens of protesters were detained around the country on Victory Day, and editors at a pro-Kremlin media outlet revolted by briefly publishing a few dozen stories criticizing Putin and the invasion.
In Warsaw, antiwar protesters splattered Russia's ambassador to Poland with what appeared to be red paint as he arrived at a cemetery to pay respects to Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.
As Putin laid a wreath in Moscow, air raid sirens echoed again in the Ukrainian capital. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared in his own Victory Day address that his country would eventually defeat the Russians.
"Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine," he said in a video. He added: "We are fighting for freedom, for our children, and therefore we will win."
A Zelenskyy adviser interpreted Putin's speech as indicating that Russia has no interest in escalating the war through the use of nuclear weapons or direct engagement with NATO.
Speaking late Monday in an online interview, Oleksiy Arestovych pointed to Putin's statement that Russia would honor the memory of those who fought in World War II by doing "everything so that the horror of a global war does not happen again."
Instead, he predicted Russia would make "a sluggish attempt" to take control of the Donbas, including Mariupol, and a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Arestovych said Russia would drag out the war while bleeding the Ukrainian economy with the aim of getting Ukraine to agree to give up that territory.
Russia has about 97 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, largely in the east and the south, a slight increase over last week, according to a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon's assessment. Each unit has roughly 1,000 troops, according to the Pentagon.
The official said that overall, the Russian effort in the Donbas hasn't achieved any significant progress in recent days and continues to face stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.
Russia is perhaps closest to a victory in Mariupol. The U.S. official said roughly 2,000 Russian forces were around Mariupol, and the city was being pounded by airstrikes. As many as 2,000 Ukrainian defenders were believed to be holding out at the steel plant, the city's last stronghold of resistance.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas and give the Kremlin a badly needed success.
Odesa, too, has increasingly been bombarded in recent days. The Ukrainian military said Russian forces fired seven missiles from the air at Odesa on Monday night, hitting a shopping center and a warehouse. One person was killed and five were wounded, the military said.
The war in the country long known as the "breadbasket of Europe" has disrupted global food supplies.
"I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export," Charles Michel, president of the European Council, lamented in a tweet after a visit to Odesa. The badly needed food is stranded because of the war and the blockade of Black Sea ports, he said, causing "dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries."
From The Associated Press
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