Kyiv: President Vladimir Putin on Monday insisted Russia was defending the “Motherland” by its war in Ukraine, as Moscow staged a show of force at a military parade marking the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky sought, however, to undercut his Russian rival’s display of might, saying Kyiv would not allow Moscow to appropriate the Soviet Union’s triumph in World War II.
Putin blamed the West and Ukraine for today’s conflict, telling thousands of troops in Moscow’s Red Square that Russia faced an “absolutely unacceptable threat” and warning against the “horror of a global war”.
But as huge intercontinental ballistic missiles rumbled through the square, Putin made no major announcements, despite reports in the West that he could unveil an escalation of the Ukraine conflict.
The war, now well into its third month, is currently focused on eastern Ukraine. Russia is seeking to secure the region, having tried and failed to take the capital Kyiv and the north.
An AFP team saw columns of trucks filled with soldiers and heavy equipment move down the main road leading away from the city of Severodonetsk, suggesting Ukraine was giving up the defence of its last stronghold in the eastern Lugansk region.
Russian forces were heavily shelling the roads, while the Ukrainians were firing back to help cover the apparent pullout.
Officials said 60 civilians were killed in a Russian air strike on a school in the eastern village of Bilogorivka on Sunday - one of the highest single death tolls since the February 24 attack.
Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday said on Monday there were “very serious battles” around Bilogorivka and Rubizhne, as Russia tries to take the Russian-speaking Donbas.
Donbas encompasses Lugansk and the neighbouring region of Donetsk.
‘Free our land’
The war is mired in history between the two ex-Soviet nations - Putin has said the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine is in part to “de-Nazify” the country.
As troops poured into Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations, in Kyiv the commemoration day was largely shunned as life slowly returned to normal weeks after fierce fighting raged in its suburbs.
The capital’s Maidan square was largely empty. Small patrols of police and Ukrainian armed forces kept watch with air sirens temporarily disrupting the quiet morning, as people waited for any sign from Putin of an upcoming escalation.
“Whatever he says, we need to do what we need to win and free our land. And that’s it,” said retired diplomat Mykola, 75.
“It’s scarier today, so it’s important to be attentive and to respond to the sirens and other threats,” said 24-year-old media worker Diana.
Zelensky earlier invoked the ghosts of the Second World War to chide Russia, saying Ukraine was “proud” of its role in ousting Nazi Germany’s forces.
“And we will not allow anyone to annex this victory. We will not allow it to be appropriated,” he said in a video speech.
He listed several cities currently under Russian control from which he said Ukrainians had ousted Nazi German forces during World War II, adding: “We won then. We will win now.”
One city he named was the devastated southern port of Mariupol, where depleted Ukrainian forces are defending their final bastion at the Azovstal steelworks.
Scores of civilians have been evacuated in recent days. An AFP reporter in the city of Zaporizhzhia said on Sunday that eight buses carrying 174 civilians - including 40 evacuated from the plant - had arrived in that Ukrainian-controlled city.
Full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and eastern regions of Ukraine run by pro-Russian separatists.
Putin used the annual Victory Day parade to rally support for a war that has dragged on for longer than Russia expected, and at far greater cost.
The celebration in Red Square featured some 11,000 troops and more than 130 military vehicles, including giant missiles, although a planned military flypast was cancelled.
Addressing Russian forces in Ukraine, he said: “You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War.”
Putin said Kyiv and its western allies had been preparing “an invasion of our historical lands”, including in Donbas region and in Crimea.
“An absolutely unacceptable threat to us was being created, directly on our borders,” Putin said, pointing to NATO weapons deliveries to Ukraine and the deployment of foreign advisors.
The West has rallied behind Zelensky and hailed him as a hero. G7 leaders met him via video conference on Sunday to discuss the conflict.
US First Lady Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, meeting her Ukrainian counterpart Olena Zelenska at a school sheltering displaced civilians.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meanwhile said Putin was responsible for “heinous war crimes” as he visited the devastated Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
The West’s show of unity has, however, come up against its reliance on Russian energy exports.
Diplomats from the European Union will meet again this week to hammer out the details of their latest sanctions package against Moscow, after a proposed embargo on Russian oil exposed rifts in the bloc.
Battle for the east
On the ground, the key battles are being fought in Ukraine’s east.
In Severodonetsk, the easternmost city still held by Ukraine, a Ukrainian soldier with the nom de guerre Koval said that Russians had now entered its northern side.
“We are defending the southern half of the city,” the soldier told AFP.
The toughest toll has been on Ukraine’s civilians, who still try to go about their lives despite the carnage around them.
“They get frightened when there is shelling. It has to be silent when you fish,” said angler Artur Cherepovskiy as he dangled a line from a bridge in Slovyansk, lamenting how the ferocity of the war has harmed his catch of carp.