Ukraine is spoiling Vladimir Putin’s May 9th parade

For the past week, shiny Russian tanks have rumbled down Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main drag. Thousands of soldiers have marched across Red Square under Soviet flags as fighter planes buzzed above the city. All were preparing for the parade on May 9th, Russia’s annual celebration of its victory in the second world war. Vladimir Putin has portrayed his barbaric war against Ukraine as a continuation of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

The Victory Day parade has been billed as a crucial moment in the war, a military showcase which Mr Putin could use as a substitute for success on the battlefield–or, alternatively, as a moment to declare he is mobilising the nation’s reservists to redouble the war effort.

But while the world waited to hear what Mr Putin would announce, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, managed to upstage him. Mr Zelensky, a former actor and pitch-perfect communicator, orchestrated a day-long political show of resistance and solidarity. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, arrived in Kyiv, where he participated in an online meeting of the G7 with Mr Zelensky as the guest of honour. The group issued a statement declaring its resolve that “President Putin must not win his war against Ukraine”, saying they owed it to “the memory of all those who fought for freedom in the second world war.”

Bärbel Bas, president of the German parliament, showed up in Kyiv as well. Bono and the Edge of U2 performed with Ukrainian musicians in a metro station being used as a bomb shelter. Jill Biden, the wife of Joe Biden, America’s president, made an unexpected appearance in western Ukraine alongside Olena Zelensky, Mr Zelensky’s wife.

As for Mr Zelensky, he released one of his trademark videos, this time in stark black-and-white in front of a building wrecked by Russian missiles. The day before, Russian forces had bombed a school in the east, killing 60 of the 90-odd people sheltering there. “Darkness has returned to Ukraine, and it has become black and white again,” said Mr Zelensky, wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m Ukrainian”. “Evil has returned, in a different uniform, under different slogans, but for the same purpose.”

Russia’s war itself was planned as a parade, a lightning march to Kyiv which was supposed to have been completed in 72 hours. But 74 days later, it has become a display of military failure. Nothing has gone to plan. A map captured from Russian troops by Ukrainian forces displays a red line which Russian tanks were supposed to follow to the capital. But the 28-page map dates from 1987, says Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council. A junction it showed was long gone. The Russians took a wrong turn and ended up bogged down in Bucha, a middle-class suburb, where they committed a host of war crimes.

If Russia’s leaders thought such violence would break Ukrainians’ resolve, they were wrong. Russian-speaking cities in eastern Ukraine became bastions of resistance. In Mariupol, a port city levelled by Russia (and where Russian propagandists plan to stage a Victory Day parade on May 9th), Ukrainian fighters of a semi-independent unit called the Azov Battalion continue to hold out in tunnels underneath the giant Azovstal steel plant. On May 8th, using Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet system, they managed to stage a press conference via Zoom from their bunkers, even as Russian forces showered the plant with bombs. “We showed what is impossible, and the impossible has become routine for us,” said Ilya Samoilenko, one of the Azov fighters. “Our message is: don’t waste our effort.”

For all its blunders, Russia has gained control over a land corridor that connects Crimea, the peninsula it seized from Ukraine in 2014, to its own territory. Whereas before the war it occupied about a third of the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, it now controls about 80%. But its offensive to capture the rest is advancing at a crawl. The fiercest fighting has been around the city of Izyum, the northern tip of a pincer that Russia hopes to close around a Ukrainian-held salient. But Ukrainian forces are dug in, in trenches and bunkers, lessening the impact of the Russians’ ever-heavier artillery barrages and making it harder for the invaders to advance.

Meanwhile Ukraine is staging a counter-offensive north-east of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, pushing Russian forces back towards the border. To slow Ukraine’s advance, Russia has blown up three bridges. “Armies generally only destroy bridges if they have largely decided they will not attempt to cross the river in the other direction anytime soon,” notes the Institute for the Study of War, an American think-tank.

Russia has also managed to occupy or blockade Ukraine’s seaports. Before the war 90% of Ukrainian steel and grain was exported by ship. Ukraine is scrambling to find alternatives. The Russians are not having an easy time holding such towns. In Kherson, an occupied port city, Russia announced on May 6th that residents could apply for Russian passports. Few have taken up the offer; Ukrainian prosecutors have opened cases against those who have. Despite intimidation, arrests and beatings, demonstrations against the occupation continue.

Given Mr Putin’s total control over Russian media, it may be enough for him to declare victory while continuing to wear Ukraine down in a war of attrition. Whether that succeeds depends on Ukraine’s ability to counter-attack. Russia has more artillery but has problems with troops and motivation. Ukraine has sufficient motivation and troops, but currently lacks the firepower to launch big counter-offensives along multiple fronts, Ukrainian officials suggest.

Ukraine’s defensive, entrenched posture in Donbas, the limited road network in the area and the muddy ground of recent weeks have made it hard for either side to move and concentrate their forces for rapid, large-scale offensives. But a Western official says that America and European countries are giving increasing volumes of heavy weaponry to Ukraine—including artillery and tanks—at least in part to encourage such efforts.

The medium- and long-range artillery systems which Ukraine desperately needs have been promised, but have been slow in coming, says Andriy Yermak, Mr Zelensky’s chief of staff. “Time is of the essence. We want to save our heroes, not to celebrate them posthumously,” he says.

Ukraine’s counter-attacks will have limits. Its army is unlikely to reverse all of Russia’s territorial gains since February 24th, something that Mr Zelensky described on May 6th as a prerequisite for negotiations. But there is every chance Ukraine can grind Russian forces to a bloody halt, as it did north of Kyiv in February and March. Mr Putin is now unlikely to be able to take the entirety of the Donbas, let alone restore Russia’s control over what it calls Novorossiya, the region stretching along the Black and Azov seas. That is an unambiguous strategic defeat.

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

Harry Byrne

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