With the Russian military still struggling, Western officials and the traumatized citizens of Ukraine are looking with more apprehension to Russia’s May 9 Victory Day — a celebration of the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany — which President Vladimir V. Putin would say. can use as a grandiose stage to intensify attacks and mobilize its citizens for all-out war.

While Russia has inflicted death and destruction in Ukraine and made some progress in the east and south in the past 10 weeks, fierce Ukrainian resistance, heavy weapons supplied by the West and Russian military incompetence have denied Mr Putin the quick victory he originally appeared to have. including the initial goal of beheading the government in Kiev.

However, with Russia on the brink of being overwhelmed by an oil embargo from the European Union, and with Victory Day in five days, Mr Putin may see the need to shock the West with another escalation. Fears are growing that Mr Putin will use the event, when he traditionally presides over a parade and delivers a militaristic speech, to lash out at Russia’s alleged enemies and expand the scope of the conflict.

In sign of that concern, Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace predicted last week that Mr Putin would use the opportunity to redefine what the Russian leader has called a “special military operation” into a war, calling for a mass mobilization of the Russian people.

Such a statement would pose a new challenge to war-ravaged Ukraine, as well as Washington and its NATO allies, who are trying to counter Russian aggression without getting directly entangled in the conflict. However, the Kremlin on Wednesday denied that Mr Putin would declare war on May 9, calling it “nonsense”, and Russian analysts noted that announcing military draft could provoke a domestic response.

Yet the Russian hierarchy also denied for months that it planned to invade Ukraine, doing just that on February 24. So the suspicion about Putin’s intention on Victory Day only becomes more acute.

“This is a question everyone is asking,” Valery Dzutsati, a visiting lecturer at the Center for Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas, said on Wednesday, adding that the “short answer is that no one knows what’s going on.” happen on May 9.

Professor Dzutsati said declaring mass mobilization or all-out war could prove very unpopular among Russians. He predicted that Mr Putin would take “the safest option possible” and point to territory Russia has already occupied in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to declare a “temporary victory”.

Preparations for May 9 are well underway in Russia as the country commemorates the 77th anniversary of the Soviet army’s victory over the Nazis as it wages another war against what Mr Putin falsely claims are modern Nazis who rule Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Russian state media reported that fighter jets and helicopters practiced in formations over Moscow’s Red Square — a show of military prowess with eight MiG-29 jets flying in the shape of the letter “Z,” which has become a ubiquitous symbol of Russian nationalism and support for the war.

Other fighter jets flew over Moscow releasing traces of white, blue and red – the colors of the Russian flag.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said on Wednesday that military parades will take place on May 9 in 28 Russian cities, with about 65,000 personnel and more than 460 aircraft.

Ukraine warned that Russia also plans to hold events on May 9 in occupied Ukrainian cities, including the ruined southern port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 civilians have been killed and those who remain are struggling to survive without adequate supplies. food, heat and water.

Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency said Russians were clearing Mariupol’s central streets of corpses and debris in an effort to make the city presentable as “the center of celebrations”.

Ukrainian citizens who have been plagued by weeks of Russian attacks are increasingly afraid that Russia could use Victory Day to subject them to even more deadly attacks.

In the western city of Lviv, which lost electricity on Wednesday after Russian missiles hit power plants, Yurji Horal, 43, a government office manager, said he planned to take his wife and young children to stay with relatives in a village about 40 miles away. to escape what he feared might be an extension of the war on May 9.

“I worry about them — and about myself,” he said. “A lot of people I know talk about it.”

In recent years, Mr. Putin has used May 9 – an almost holy holiday for Russians since 27 million Soviets died in World War II – to mobilize the nation for the possibility of another battle ahead.

Addressing the nation from his podium in Red Square on May 9 last year, he warned that Russia’s enemies were once again using “much of the Nazis’ ideology.”

With Russian state media portraying the battle in Ukraine as the unfinished business of World War II, it seems almost certain that Mr Putin will use his May 9 speech to invoke the heroism of Soviet soldiers to try and inspire the Russians. to make new offerings. †

But a mass mobilization — possibly with compulsory military service and a ban on military-age Russian men leaving the country — could bring the reality of war to a much larger part of Russian society, causing unrest.

For many Russians, the “special military operation” in Ukraine still feels like a distant conflict. Independent pollster Levada found last month that 39 percent of Russians paid little or no attention to it.

“If you watch it on TV, it’s one thing,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “If you get a message from the recruitment agency, it’s something else. There would probably be certain difficulties for the leadership in making such a decision.”

Kortunov predicted that fighting in eastern Ukraine would eventually grind to a halt, after which Russia and Ukraine could strike a deal — or rearm and regroup for a new phase of the war.

He noted that while some senior Russian officials and state television commentators have called for the destruction of Ukraine, Mr Putin has recently been more vague about his war goals, at least in public remarks.

Mr Kortunov said Mr Putin could still declare the mission accomplished once Russia took most of the Donbas region. Russia has significantly expanded its control of that region since the start of the war, but Ukraine still has a number of important cities and towns.

“If everything ends with the Donbas, there would probably be a way to explain that this was always the plan,” said Mr. Kortunov. “Putin has left that option open to himself.”

With no resolution to the conflict in sight, the European Union took a major step on Wednesday to weaken Putin’s ability to finance the war, by proposing a total embargo on Russian oil. The measure, expected to be finalized within days, would ban Russian crude oil imports to almost the entire European Union over the next six months and ban refined oil products by the end of the year.

“Let’s be clear, it won’t be easy,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where the announcement was greeted with applause. “Some member states are heavily dependent on Russian oil. But we just have to work on it.”

The European Union also pledged on Wednesday to provide additional military support to Moldova, a former Soviet republic on Ukraine’s southwestern border that Western officials say could be used by Russia as a launching pad for further attacks.

Security fears in Moldova rose last week when mysterious explosions shook Transnistria, a Kremlin-backed separatist region of the country where Russia has had soldiers since 1992.

While European officials said they would “significantly increase” military support for Moldova by providing additional military equipment, as well as tools to counter disinformation and cyber-attacks, they did not provide details.

Reporting contributed by Jane ArrafNeil MacFarquharMatina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk

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