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Ukraine and its allies are bracing for an urgent Russian onslaught in the eastern Donbas region to deliver a military and propaganda triumph for the Kremlin in time for a prestigious annual parade on May 9.
The Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, marking the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, are a symbolic annual show of national pride and are typically attended by President Vladimir Putin in Red Square.
This year’s parade will come in the shadow of a Russian offensive in Ukraine which, after seven weeks of fighting, has so far failed to deliver the kind of swift victories that analysts believe Mr Putin was seeking.
Amid reports of heavy losses and low morale among Russian troops, the invasion suffered another embarrassing setback on Thursday when Russia admitted the sinking of its flagship missile cruiser Moskva.
Ukraine says Russia has turned its attention to the Donbas in an offensive that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight address was being carried out “as if they want only stones to be left”.
His top diplomat, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, recently briefed his Nato colleagues that “Putin needs a trophy for May 9”, according to Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn, one of the ministers present.
Mr Putin "will do everything to liberate the Donbas, as he sees it,” Mr Kuleba was described as saying. “In the next three weeks we will see something happen in Donbas that recalls the Second World War.”
Russia is also continuing its assault on the southern city of Mariupol, the capture of which would create a land bridge between Russian-occupied territories in the Donbas and the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russia was planning to declare victory in the city on May 9 if it can seize control of the southern port by then – giving it something to celebrate on the politically significant date.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a television interview during his re-election campaign that the weeks before then were unlikely to produce many concessions from Russia in its tentative peace talks with Ukraine.
“May 9 is a national celebration, an important military date and it is more or less certain that it has to be a day of victory for President Putin,” said Mr Macron, who has held lengthy talks with the Russian leader.
Parades commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany could also be used to underscore the Kremlin’s rhetoric that it is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, a notion rejected by western powers as a spurious pretext for war.
Russian news agency Tass said parades in memory of fallen Soviet troops, known as Immortal Regiment marches, would take place in person again this year after two years of online events due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Similar marches could take place in “liberated Ukrainian territories” if it is safe to do so, organiser Sergey Makarov was quoted as saying.
The main parade in Moscow typically involves tanks rolling across Red Square in a show of Russian military power while Mr Putin speaks to Soviet war veterans and lays a wreath at a tomb for an unknown soldier.
Analysts at think tank Rusi said it “may be challenging” for Russia to organise full-scale parades if its armed forces are busy with the invasion and suffering what Ukraine says are heavy losses.
A running tally published by Ukraine claims Russia has lost almost 20,000 troops during the 51-day war, as well as 750 tanks, 160 aircraft, 140 helicopters and 120 multiple rocket launcher systems.
Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union when it defeated Nazi Germany, also marks Victory Day on May 9. But Mr Zelenskyy called for modesty during last year’s commemorations and said the day should pass without “euphoria or dizziness”.
“This is not a carnival, not a costume party, and certainly not a photo shoot of politicians in the uniform of an army which they had nothing to do with,” he said at the time.