Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered few clues on the direction of the conflict in Ukraine while delivering his anticipated Victory Day speech in which he did not escalate the war nor signal its end.
Addressing the massed ranks of service personnel on Moscow’s Red Square, Mr Putin evoked the memory of Soviet heroism in World War II to inspire his army.
He repeated his baseless justification for invading Ukraine to stamp out “Nazis” and claimed Russia was acting in self-defence against the threats of the USA, NATO and Ukraine’s government.
Victory Day is one of Russia’s most important annual holidays, when the nation honours the 27 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives in the struggle to defeat Adolf Hitler — a source of national pride and identity.
After weeks of speculation that the Russian leader might use the significant occasion to declare victory or escalate the invasion, Mr Putin offered no new road map.
Some observers raised questions about Mr Putin’s health as he was seen coughing and walking with a limp and appeared to be wearing a lap blanket for warmth.
Mr Putin directly addressed soldiers fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which Russia has pledged to “liberate” from Kyiv’s control.
“You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II. So that there is no place in the world for executioners, castigators and Nazis,” he said.
Meanwhile heavy fighting continues in eastern Ukraine where civilians were warned to take cover from missile strikes expected Russia’s WWII anniversary.
Four high-precision Onyx missiles fired from the Russian-controlled Crimea peninsula struck the Odesa area in southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said later, without giving details.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the situation in the east was “difficult”, but Russia had moved back from the city of Kharkiv, where a local official reported heavy Russian shelling.
President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed the deaths of dozens of people in the Russian bombing of a school in eastern Ukraine on Saturday.
“As a result of a Russian strike on Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region, about 60 people were killed, civilians, who simply hid at the school, sheltering from shelling,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
In its latest briefing on the war, the Pentagon said Russia’s gains in the eastern Donbas had been uneven and incremental over the past few days, with “single-digit kilometre kind of progress”, reports CNN.
In the south, Russia was making “virtually no progress”.
Mr Putin’s 11-minute address, on day 75 of the invasion, was largely notable for what he did not say.
He did not mention Ukraine by name, and offered no indication of how long the conflict might continue.
There was no reference to the bloody battle for Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders holed up in the ruins of the Azovstal steel works were still defying Russia’s assault.
However, in a televised meeting in his Kremlin office after the parade, Mr Putin offered condolences to Artyom Zhoga, the father of a Russian battalion commander killed in the Donbas region, telling him: “All plans are being fulfilled. A result will be achieved – on that account there is no doubt.”
Mr Putin has repeatedly likened the war — which he casts as a battle against dangerous “Nazi”-inspired nationalists in Ukraine — to the challenge the Soviet Union faced when Hitler invaded in 1941.
But Mr Zelensky has said it is Russia that is staging a “bloody re-enactment of Nazism” in Ukraine in an unprovoked war of aggression.
Preceded by a stirring fanfare, Mr Putin delivered his address after a group of eight high-stepping guards marched across the cobbles of Red Square carrying the Russian tricolour flag and the red Soviet hammer-and-sickle victory banner, accompanied by stirring martial music.
The fighting forces responded with booming cheers as Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu crossed the square in a black limousine, saluting units including missile, national guard and paratroop units and congratulating them on the anniversary.
Mr Putin’s speech was followed by a parade across the vast square featuring Russia’s latest Armata and T-90M Proryv tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A planned fly-past was cancelled because of cloudy conditions.
Mr Putin then laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and placed red carnations on memorials commemorating Soviet Hero Cities that resisted Hitler’s forces.
They included Kyiv and Odesa — a reminder of the huge losses sustained by Ukrainians as well as Russians in the war.
The imposing display could not mask the fact that 75 days into the biggest assault on a European country since World War II, Russia’s army has failed to deliver victory for Mr Putin.
Plagued by logistics and equipment problems and poor co-ordination and tactics, it was repelled in an initial attempt to storm the capital Kyiv and subsequently declared a more limited objective to take the Donbas.
But there too, it has struggled to make decisive progress, while the war has killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions and devastated large areas of Ukraine.
Kyiv and the West say Russia’s own death toll from the war exceeds the 15,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1989.