Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his war in Ukraine on Monday and likened the conflict to last century’s fight against Nazi Germany, but the Kremlin faces serious questions about its ability to replenish its ranks as casualties mount and its wartime tactics face growing scrutiny at home and abroad.
Military observers thought Mr. Putin might use his high-profile Victory Day address commemorating the end of World War II to formally declare war on Ukraine. Such a move would give Moscow powers to launch a full-blown draft and call up young soldiers to replace the thousands killed or wounded in the 10-week-old campaign. It’s unclear how long Mr. Putin can sustain the war at its current pace without major conscription.
Mr. Putin stopped short of that declaration, and his speech lacked claims of any significant victories in a war that most foreign policy analysts say has exposed underlying weaknesses and logistical shortcomings in the Russian military machine.
Instead, Mr. Putin blamed the West for the conflict. He said his country had little choice but to launch a “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“Danger was increasing every day. Russia repelled this aggression in a preventive way. This was the only correct decision, and it was a timely decision — the decision of an independent, sovereign and powerful nation,” Mr. Putin said.
Thousands of Russian troops and scores of armored combat vehicles were on display in Moscow’s Red Square to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Mr. Putin tried to draw a historical parallel between World War II and the war in Ukraine, and he blamed the West for a purported effort to “cancel these millennia-old values” embodied by the Russian state.
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“This moral degradation paved the way for cynical falsifications of the history of World War II, attempts to incite Russophobia, glorify traitors, mock the memory of their victims and wipe out the bravery of those who fought and suffered for the victory,” Mr. Putin said, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency.
Mr. Putin delivered his speech against the backdrop of conflict in Mariupol and other key cities across southern and eastern Ukraine. The Russian military continued its assault on the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained holed up as the final hurdle to full Russian control of the city.
Ukrainians inside the sprawling complex vowed to fight in the face of overwhelming odds.
“The enemy has a complete advantage in aviation and naval artillery,” Azov Regiment Chief of Staff Maj. Bohdan Krotevych told The Washington Times. “Our secret is very simple: We clearly understand that we are defending our homeland. We swore an oath to the Ukrainian people, and we will defend our state to the last bullet.”
Maj. Krotevych, who spoke with The Times over the Telegram messaging app, said his unit has been inside the steel plant for two months, sleeping underground as Russia launches its barrage from the air and sea.
“First, they destroyed the positions with all-night artillery and aircraft [strikes], after which the enemy stormed them with infantry and tanks,” he said.
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Russian forces on Monday also fired cruise missiles at the strategically vital port city of Odesa, though local officials said no civilians were killed.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used Russia’s Victory Day celebration to pledge that his forces would ultimately triumph.
“Very soon, there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine,” he said in a video address. “We are fighting for freedom, for our children, and therefore we will win.”
Balance of power
A Ukrainian victory seemed virtually impossible in the first few weeks of the war, when Russian forces invaded from multiple directions and set their sights on the capital of Kyiv.
The offensive in the north was quickly thwarted, partly because of Ukraine’s highly effective use of American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles and other weaponry and partly because of Russia’s logistical failures.
Russian forces abandoned the Kyiv campaign and turned their full attention to the disputed Donbas region. Most Western observers viewed the change in strategy as a de facto acknowledgment of failure by Mr. Putin.
“This war is a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You see the Russian military getting their ass handed to them on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
Moving forward, Russian military leaders face the daunting challenge of replacing soldiers at a level much higher than they anticipated. Specialists say that won’t be easy, especially given Mr. Putin’s apparent reluctance to declare war on Ukraine and institute a nationwide draft.
“When Putin launched his war in Ukraine, he, as well as many in the West, expected the campaign would be quick and involve few Russian casualties. But the action has now entered its third month, and Russian combat losses are estimated as high as 20,000 or more — figures that exceed Soviet losses in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan,” Paul Goble, a scholar with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote in a recent piece for the foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
“Making up for those deaths is not easy, especially in the absence of a declaration of war,” he said. “Moreover, the Kremlin is encountering difficulties with recruiting fresh volunteers. It is having to offer them more money than ever before. And Russia faces problems if it shifts forces from other parts of the country, given that the military is the last line of defense for the survival of the regime in the event of domestic political challenges.”
There are signs of growing domestic unrest in Russia. The Kremlin has been mostly successful at controlling the narrative at home and blocking citizens’ access to news about the war, but Putin’s critics have briefly broken through that wall.
Reuters reported Monday that Russian satellite television menus apparently had been hacked and temporarily included messages critical of the war effort.
“You have blood on your hands,” one of the messages said, according to screenshots obtained by Reuters.
Russian officials are facing increasing harassment abroad as well. Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, was reportedly splattered with red paint by protesters when he arrived at a Victory Day ceremony in Warsaw.
Such international outrage has surged as Russia’s war tactics grow more brutal and civilian casualties in Ukraine increase.
This weekend, a Russian airstrike destroyed a school in the eastern Ukrainian village of Bilohorivka, killing at least 60 people sheltering there.
Local officials said two boys, ages 11 and 14, were killed in the attack.
Foreign intelligence officials see growing evidence that Russia’s armed forces aren’t as accurate and precise as previously believed.
“Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine has revealed shortcomings in its ability to conduct precision strikes at scale,” the British Defense Ministry said in a Twitter post on Monday. “Russia has subjected Ukraine’s towns and cities to intense and indiscriminate bombardments with little or no regard for civilian casualties.”
• Joseph Clark and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.