Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Red Square on the 77th anniversary of Victory Day over Nazi Germany. Photo: The Kremlin

Russia Monday celebrated the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, but the key target of the so-called de-Nazification campaign in Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine continues to defy Russia’s soldiers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday shot down widespread expectations that he might use the traditional May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square to announce an expansion of troop strength, or perhaps claim a victory in Ukraine.

Instead, he drew emotive links between the current war in Ukraine and World War II.

His opponent in Kiev was not willing to cede to Russia the credit for victory over Hitler. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky made clear that Ukrainians, as well as Russians, fought in the Soviet Red Army that struggled against, counter-attacked and eventually shattered Nazi Germany’s war machine.

While Putin made repeated – and emotive – references to Nazis and Nazism, he offered no new strategy for victory. Clearly, the old strategy has not achieved its aims. At the outset, Putin said Russia’s “special military operation” aimed to achieve “Denazification” and “Demilitarization.”

The fiercest combat underway in Europe since World War II suggests the latter aim has not been achieved. The continued survival of a unit that has been massively demonized across Russia shows the non-attainment of that.

The far-right Azov Regiment, which has been surrounded, continues to hold out in a giant steelworks in Mariupol, the only significant Ukrainian city that Russian forces have stormed. With civilians sheltered in the plant, Putin suggested besieging Azovstal rather than storming it.

But the last civilians, which Moscow claimed were human shields, were, according to reports on the ground, evacuated over the weekend. If those reports were accurate, the evacuation paves the way for a final showdown, and presents Russian commanders with a conundrum.

Azostal is emblematic of the weaknesses bedeviling the forces of both the invaders and defenders.

In the first phase of its offensive, Russia, despite deploying its best troops, failed to seize any major cities, bar Mariupol. That points to a lack of infantry – the key arm for urban fighting.

In the second phase, now underway in Donbas, it is fighting with fire rather than maneuver, despite the highly vulnerable position of major Ukrainian forces defending a deep salient. The reliance on artillery suggests weaknesses in combined arms and mobile capabilities that were previously seen as a Russia specialty.

But if Russia is bogging down, Ukraine, too, has problems.

Despite a national mobilization, Kiev remains largely on the defensive and its forces and civilian population are taking lethal hammerings. While Ukrainian forces were successful at local counter-attacks around Kiev and Kharkiv, they lack the capability for a long-range offensive – hence the hopeless situation facing the defiant defenders of Azovstal.

In a high-profile visit on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visited Mariupol. However, he offered no solution for the Azovstal situation, which prevents Russia from claiming it has taken the entire city.

The Russian flag, and the Red Banner that was hung over the Reichstag at the conclusion of the battle of Berlin, are marched onto Red Square. Photo: The Kremlin

Old emotions, no new strategy

There had been widespread speculation on Monday that Putin would announce the call-up of reservists or perhaps the deployment of conscripts to the theater of operations. Others expected him to claim some kind of victory.

No such announcements were made.

Instead, Putin stuck to tradition – stirring the national passions of those whose ancestors fought the bloodiest war in history.

Monday’s event started with the Kremlin Honor Guard Battalion marching, hefting both the Russian flag and the Red Banner that was raised over Berlin’s Reichstag in 1945, to the tune of the Soviet anthem Arise, Great Country.

After three “Urrahs” – the Russian battle cry – from 11,000 troops, Putin spoke.

“The defence of our Motherland when its destiny was at stake has always been sacred,” he said, reeling off a list of the names of Soviet cities – including Ukraine’s Kiev and Kharkiv – that featured in the war. Linking present to past, he told his soldiers: “Today, as in the past, you are fighting for our people in Donbas, for the security of our Motherland, for Russia.”

The Donbas area in eastern Ukraine is now the key focus of combat. Two Russian-speaking republics sought to break away from the Ukrainian state in 2014, sparking combat that has continued until now.

Heavy fighting is now taking place in the east and north of a major Ukrainian salient in the region. Earlier, the fiercest fighting of the current war took place in Mariupol, the southern Donbas port on the Azov Sea.

Putin raised an early reason for his early military buildup in winter 2021 – that Ukrainian forces were planning a general offensive against Donbas, and claimed Kiev was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

Putting forth a message of Russian victimhood, he referenced the back-and-forth diplomacy that took place in the months prior to Russia’s invasion. Stating that Moscow had “… urged the West to hold an honest dialog,” he said: “NATO countries did not want to heed us – they had different plans. And we saw it.”

Russia launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression. It was a forced, timely and the only correct decision. A decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country.

NATO, which he noted supplied military infrastructure and advice to Ukraine, pre-war, came in for a broadside. “The NATO bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us” he said, calling that “an unacceptable threat.”

Veering back to World War II, he added: “There was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites” – a reference to followers of notorious Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi ally Stepan Bandera – “backed by the US and their minions was unavoidable.”

Due to this, “Russia launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression, Putin said, “a decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country.”

Russian troops parading on Red Square sound the Soviet battle cry – three ‘Urrahs.’ Photo: The Kremlin

Zelensky claims Ukraine’s share of victory

Putin’s chief opponent asserted his own sovereign rights and refused to let Russia take full credit for the Soviet victory in World War II.

Ukrainian President Zelensky chose to deliver a far more austere address than Putin’s glittering parade. He spoke, alone, to camera on a walkthrough of an empty, partly barricaded street in central Kiev, a city still in range of Russian missiles.  

“This is not a war of two armies, it is a war of two world views,” he said, wearing the fatigues he has adopted since the Russian assault started on February 24. “We are a free people who have our own path.”

Insisting that “we will not give anyone a single piece of our land,” he stated that Ukraine, too, was celebrating the end of World War II.

“Today we celebrate the Day of Victory over Nazism and we will not give anyone a single piece of our history,” Zelensky said. “We are proud of our ancestors who, together with other nations in the anti-Hitler coalition, defeated Nazism. And we will not allow anyone to annex this victory, we will not allow it to be appropriated.”

Like Putin, he linked past to present. “On the Day of Victory over Nazism, we are fighting for a new victory,” he said.

Raising Russia’s current clarion call of “de-Nazification,” Zelensky, who is of Jewish ancestry, noted: “Millions of Ukrainians fought the Nazis.”

That is unquestionable.

While some Ukrainians, like other Eastern Europeans, did fight on the German side – they supplied one division of Waffen SS troops and also made up many of the guards (the notorious Trawniki Men) who manned the Nazi liquidation camps in Poland – millions served in the Red Army.

While exact percentages vary from researcher to researcher, all agree on a general point: Russians were the largest single ethnic group in the Red Army and Ukrainians the second largest. The wartime Red Army force eventually numbered almost 35 million, encompassing troops who hailed from Belarus to Siberia.

Some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought on Ukrainian territory, including Kiev, Kharkiv and Cherkassy. Historians estimate the Red Army destroyed 75-80% of the German ground forces in that war.

The price was high. The USSR suffered some 27 million dead in World War II, the largest number of war dead in a single conflict in history. According to one roundup of data on the subject, of those, 7.5 million were Ukrainian.

President Volodymyr Zelensky strides through central Kiev during his workmanlike address on the occassion of Victory Day, 2022. Photo: The Presidency of Ukraine

Russia’s demons won’t surrender

Few outside Russia would today call Ukraine a neo-Nazi state.

In 2014, amid political upheaval, there was widespread violence, the outbreak of armed conflict in the Donbas and a massacre in Odessa. Far-right forces and extreme nationalists were among the combatants and agent provocateurs.

However, according to the Ukrainian electoral commission, no far-right party passed the 5% threshold in the 2019 parliamentary election. Far-right parties do not hold a single seat in the parliament.

Still, there are ultra-nationalist forces – some holding white supremacist views and wielding Nazi symbology – at work in Ukraine. The most famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, is the Azov Regiment.

It appeared as a freikorps militia in Donbas in 2014, where it fought to keep Mariupol in Ukraine, and in subsequent fighting, won a reputation as a crack unit. Though it drew white supremacists from around Europe and North America, its PR later claimed that fewer than 20% of its members held supremacist views.

Now absorbed into Ukraine’s national guard, it has proven one of the most effective units in Kiev’s order of battle.

Mariupol, strategically vital to both north-south and east-west movement, was the only significant Ukrainian city Putin’s forces stormed. There, Russian, pro-Russian Donbas militants and Chechen light infantry and military fought a grinding battle against Ukrainian motorized infantry, marines and the Azov Regiment.

Despite weeks of combat that left the city in rubble, Russian forces were unable to annihilate the defenders. A battalion of Azov fighters, together with unknown numbers of a badly attrited marine brigade, have entrenched themselves in the Azovstal steel plant.

A giant complex, reminiscent of the factories that became fortresses in Stalingrad in 1942/3, has Soviet-era nuclear fallout shelters below its shop floors, suggesting it can withstand the heaviest possible bombardment. Indeed, missile, artillery and airstrikes have so far failed to break the defenders.

Estimates put the defenders’ number at 2,000, a figure Asia Times considers high.

Azov troops have been hailed as heroes by many Ukrainians, some of whom have protested in Kiev, demanding some kind of rescue of the distant, surrounded troops. Zelensky has awarded their Mariupol commander with the country’s highest medal.

Sky News, in an interview with a British volunteer who fought with the group, said: “A lot of them are decent guys, just with stupid views.”

But the unit is demonized in Russia.

Its fate is a subject of great anticipation in Russian-language social media, and the capture of Azov fighters sporting Nazi or SS tattoos would provide Moscow with near-perfect propaganda fodder. Photos have appeared online of Chechen troops strip-searching captured males in Mariupol in search of such tattoos.

At Azovstal, Russian forces have three apparent options.

Starving it out while bombarding it is the least bloody. Storming it would mean hideous combat in ruins and tunnels that are perfect for the defense. Liquidating it by feeding in such nightmare weapons as thermobaric bombs – fuel-air explosives that ignite oxygen – or chemicals.

The last two options would likely create a legend for Ukraine: A Hastings- or Alamo-style last stand.

Last weekend, despite the loss of their civilian “shields,” the defenders said they were unwilling to raise the white flag.

“We are witnesses of Russian crimes,” said Lieutenant Ilyo Samoilenko during a video press conference held over the weekend that was monitored by foreign media. “Surrender is not an option because Russia is not interested in our lives.”

Yet with the closest Ukrainian forces more than 100-kilometers away, a Ukrainian relief operation looks impossible, and it seems highly unlikely Russia would allow the hated Azov men to be evacuated to or by a third country, as their commander in Mariupol has suggested.

According to state-run Russian media, there is bitterness that Kiev left the defenders of Mariupol without support.

“Kiev told us to hold on, [saying] that the units that will lift the blockade are coming, they’ll soon be here,” Colonel Vladimir Baranyuk, who commanded the marine brigade whose survivors joined Azov in the steelworks, told RT. 

We were promised certain help. Naturally, this help didn’t arrive. And this pushed us to come out.

Asia Times cannot confirm whether Baranyuk, a prisoner of war, was speaking of his own volition.

An Azov soldier near Mariupol. Photo: WikiCommons / Carl Ridderstrale