Putin says Russia defending 'Motherland' as Ukraine war rages

Fierce battles raged in eastern Ukraine while Putin made his Victory Day speech against a backdrop of intercontinental ballistic missiles rumbling through Moscow's emblematic Red Square.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on 9 May 2022. Picture: Mikhail METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP

KYIV - President Vladimir Putin on Monday defended Russia's war in Ukraine as necessary to protect the "Motherland" as Moscow flexed its military muscle at a huge parade marking the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

Fierce battles raged in eastern Ukraine while Putin made his Victory Day speech against a backdrop of intercontinental ballistic missiles rumbling through Moscow's emblematic Red Square.

Ukrainians and Westerners accused Putin of exploiting the World War II anniversary, with protesters in Warsaw tossing blood-red paint on the Russian ambassador, chanting "fascists!" and hoisting a Ukrainian flag, as he visited a cemetery.

But Putin sought to channel Russian pride for what he has described as a "special military operation" to "de-Nazify" Ukraine, which is led by an elected Jewish president.

Putin blamed the West and Ukraine for the two-and-a-half-month conflict, telling the parade that Russia faced an "absolutely unacceptable threat" and warning against the "horror of a global war".

"You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War," he said.

The celebration in Red Square also featured some 11,000 troops and more than 130 military vehicles, although a planned military flypast was cancelled.

"Nobody could have imagined that 77 years later, fascist forces, Nazi forces would come back to life, killing civilians, butchering Russians into pieces," Anastasia Rybina, a participant, told AFP.

"Putin conducts politics so well, well done to him. He makes sure that our boys don't die, that there is as little blood as possible. I bow down to him," added Taisiya Chepurina, 81, whose husband fought in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943.

Western powers were unimpressed by Putin's words. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace accused Putin of "mirroring fascism", French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Russian leader was "in denial" and US State Department spokesman Ned Price called his speech "patently absurd" and an "insult" to history.

'THEY WILL NEVER SUCCEED'

In the critical port of Odessa, European Council President Charles Michel paid a surprise visit of support and was forced to take shelter during a strike.

"The Kremlin wants to execute your spirit of freedom and democracy," he said in a video posted from Odessa. "I am totally convinced they will never succeed."

The port city was hit Monday evening by a series of powerful missiles, destroying five buildings, setting ablaze a shopping centre and injuring two people, emergency services said.

Russia has been seeking to seize Ukraine's east after failing to take the capital Kyiv.

The governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said Monday there were "very serious battles" around Bilogorivka and Rubizhne.

An AFP team saw columns of trucks filled with soldiers and heavy equipment move down the main road leading away from the city of Severodonetsk, suggesting Ukraine was giving up the defence of its last stronghold village of Bilogorivka on Sunday.

Pro-Russian separatists feted Victory Day in Ukraine's devastated southern port of Mariupol, where depleted Ukrainian forces are defending their final bastion at the Azovstal steelworks.

Separatist leader Denis Pushilin and residents carried a giant black and orange ribbon of Saint George - a symbol of WWII celebrations in Russia - through the city that has seen some of the heaviest fighting since the invasion on 24 February.

Full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and eastern regions of Ukraine run by pro-Russian separatists.

'WE WILL WIN'

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky invoked the ghosts of World War II to chide Russia for claiming sole credit for winning.

"We will not allow anyone to annex this victory. We will not allow it to be appropriated," he said in a video speech shortly before Putin spoke.

Yet in Kyiv the commemoration day was largely shunned as life slowly returned to normal, weeks after fierce fighting raged in its suburbs.

The West has rallied behind Zelensky as a hero and promised new support.

US President Joe Biden signed a Lend-Lease Act - modelled on World War II efforts to fight Nazi Germany - that cuts through bureaucratic hurdles to speed up weapons shipments to Ukraine.

The United States has sent some $4 billion in military aid to Ukraine already but "caving to aggression is even more costly," Biden said as he signed the act, passed with unusual bipartisan support.

Zelensky hailed the measure as a "historic step," writing on Twitter, "I am convinced that we will win together again. And we will defend democracy in Ukraine. And in Europe. Like 77 years ago."

PROGRESS TOWARDS EMBARGO

In another step forward in pressuring Russia, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she made "progress" on a proposed Russian oil embargo during talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The populist Orban is one of Putin's closest friends in Europe and had held up the bloc's attempt to phase out Russian oil - one of the most painful measures yet taken by the West - as he pointed to economic consequences in landlocked Hungary.

But France's President Emmanuel Macron poured cold water on Ukraine's oft-repeated desire for fast-track European Union membership, saying it would take "decades".

Macron, however, suggested building a broader political bloc that could also include Britain.

One ray of hope has come from prisoner swaps.

Ukrainian soldier Glib Stryzhko, 25, was gravely wounded and captured in Mariupol in April but finally released after a secret phone call to his mother.

"After we were loaded onto the bus waiting for us, the driver said: 'Guys, you can breathe. You are home now,'" Stryzhko told AFP from his hospital bed in Zaporizhzhia.