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Putin’s Victory Day speech gives no clue on Ukraine escalation

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6/6

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Russian Il-78 military transport aircraft flies during a rehearsal for a flypast, part of a military parade marking the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia May 7, 2022. REUTERS/Maxim Sheme

2/6

By Pavel Polityuk and Jonathan Landay

KYIV/KHARKIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -Vladimir Putin exhorted Russians to battle in a defiant Victory Day speech on Monday, but was silent about plans for any escalation in Ukraine, despite Western warnings he might use his Red Square address to order a national mobilisation.

In Ukraine, there was no let up in fighting, with Kyiv reporting missile strikes in the southern port of Odesa and a renewed push by Russian forces to defeat the last Ukrainian troops holding out in a steelworks in ruined Mariupol.

Monday’s annual parade in Moscow – with the usual ballistic missiles and tanks rumbling across the cobblestones – was easily the most closely watched since the 1945 defeat of the Nazis that it celebrates.

Western capitals had openly speculated for weeks that Putin was driving his forces to achieve enough progress by the symbolic date to declare victory – but with few gains so far, might instead announce a national call-up for war.

The Russian president did neither, but repeated his assertions that his forces were again fighting Nazis.

“You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War Two. So that there is no place in the world for executioners, castigators and Nazis,” Putin said from the tribune outside the Kremlin walls.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his own speech, promised Ukrainians they would triumph.

“On the Day of Victory over Nazism, we are fighting for a new victory. The road to it is difficult, but we have no doubt that we will win,” said Zelenskiy, wearing plain army garb with his shirt sleeves rolled up.

In Washington, where sources say Democratic lawmakers have agreed on a $40 billion aid proposal for Ukraine, including a massive new weapons package, the White House described Putin’s remarks as “revisionist history that took the form of disinformation.”

Russia’s war has killed thousands of civilians, sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing and reduced cities to rubble. Moscow has little to show for it beyond a strip of territory in the south and marginal gains in the east.

Sheltering in a metro station in Kharkiv – Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking second city which has been bombed relentlessly since the war’s first days – World War Two survivor Vira Mykhailivna, 90, buried her tear-stained cheeks in her hands.

“I didn’t think this could ever happen to us,” she said. “This day was once a great celebration.”

Kateryna Grigoriyevna, 79, a retired bank manager who has spent 10 weeks underground in the cavernous station, sat eating an ice cream she had ventured out to buy for Victory Day.

“We hate Putin,” she said, glancing around the platform where some 200 people cluster in tents and on thin mattresses.

“I would kill him myself if I could.”

‘ONLY DISHONOUR, AND SURELY DEFEAT’

The Soviet victory in World War Two has acquired almost religious status in Russia under Putin, who has invoked the memory of the “Great Patriotic War” throughout what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Western countries consider that a false analogy to justify unprovoked aggression.

“There can be no victory day, only dishonour and surely defeat in Ukraine,” said British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

In Poland, the Russian ambassador was surrounded by protesters at a memorial ceremony and doused in red paint. Ambassador Sergei Andreyev, his face dripping and his shirt stained, said he was “proud of my country and my president”.

After an assault on Kyiv was beaten back in March by strong Ukrainian resistance, Russia poured more troops in for a huge offensive in the east last month.

Russian gains have been slow at best, and Western arms are flooding into Ukraine for an expected counter-attack.

Western military experts – many of whom initially predicted a quick Russian victory – now say Moscow could be running out of troops. A full declaration of war would let Putin activate reservists and send conscripts.

“Without concrete steps to build a new force, Russia can’t fight a long war, and the clock starts ticking on the failure of their army in Ukraine,” tweeted Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at Britain’s University of St Andrews.

The war still seems to enjoy strong public support in Russia, where independent journalism is effectively banned and state television says Russia is defending itself from NATO. Conscription would test that support.

Olga, participating in St Petersburg’s “immortal regiment” commemoration march, said she feared for her student son.

“I’m really worried about him. I know many mothers whose sons are now of conscription age … They’re trying to find any way to save their children from going to this war.”

COMBING WRECKAGE

In Ukraine’s southern port of Odesa, missiles struck tourist sites, destroying five buildings and injuring two, its city council said. Ukrainian media reported an Odesa shopping centre was ablaze after a strike. There was no immediate confirmation.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of Ukraine’s frontline Luhansk province, said rescuers were trying to begin sifting through the site of a school in the town of Bilohorivka after a Russian attack believed to have killed 60 people there on Sunday.

Ukrainian forces were holding firm at the towns of Rubizhne and Popasna, major targets of Russia’s advance, he said.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said Russian forces backed by tanks and artillery were conducting “storming operations” at Mariupol’s Azovstal plant, where hundreds of Ukrainian defenders have held out through months of siege. Civilians sheltering there were evacuated in recent days.

The Russians were trying to blow up a bridge used for evacuations, to trap the last defenders inside, said Mariupol mayoral aide Petro Andryuschenko.

Just before the Red Square parade was broadcast, Moscow satellite television menus were briefly altered to show viewers messages condemning the Ukraine war.

“The TV and the authorities are lying. No to war,” the messages said.

World

Analysis: Erdogan’s vow to expand Syria operations raises stakes in Turkey-NATO row

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Turkish soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 28 ,2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Daren Butler, Jonathan Spicer and Maya Gebeily

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to launch military operations soon to expand safe zones already set up across Turkey’s southern borders has raised the stakes in his row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.

Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.

Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he gears up for difficult elections next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.

Turkey has conducted three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometres of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations targeting mainly the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

It has also stepped up military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.

Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.

Asli Aydintasbas, Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was about testing Turkey’s NATO allies.

“President Erdogan’s style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante – and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink,” she said.

“It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”

Erdogan said operations to combat threats from across the border would start once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence had completed their preparations, with decisions set to be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.

KURDISH FACTOR

The YPG, or People’s Defence Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition which the United States has largely relied on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.

Commenting on Erdogan’s announcement, the SDF accused Turkey of attempting to “destabilise the region” by threatening military action in northern Syria.

The SDF also said it had shot down a Turkish drone on Sunday which it said Ankara has used for surveillance of SDF-held areas ahead of planned shelling.

“In case of any attack, of course we will resist and fight back. The international community now faces an important test: will it effectively rein in Turkey?” said Ciwan Mulla Ibrahim, spokesperson for the SDF-controlled autonomous administration in northeast Syria.

Syria’s foreign ministry in Damascus did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was also no immediate comment from Washington.

Erdogan said the planned military operation would reveal which countries respected Turkey’s security concerns and which did not – an issue that cuts to the heart of the current NATO row.

Dareen Khalifa, analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said a Turkish military move against the YPG was always possible despite the relative calm along Turkey’s border with YPG-held areas in northern Syria since 2019.

While mediators including the United States have managed to calm tensions in recent years, “the crux of the issue – Turkish-PKK relations – hasn’t been addressed”, she said.

ELECTIONS LOOM

Erdogan hopes to leverage the issue of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO into an opportunity to achieve his long-held goal of creating a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters along Turkey’s entire border with Syria, analysts said.

His move comes as opinion polls show support for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party sagging amid deepening economic woes. Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

Aydintasbas said Turkey had previously staged cross-border operations ahead of elections. But mounting a large-scale military incursion brings risks too.

As well as the YPG presence, Russia has forces deployed in the area to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. troops, Turkey-backed insurgents, Iran-backed fighters, jihadists and Syrian government forces also operate across the patchwork of territories in northern Syria.

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Russian and Chinese jets conduct patrol in East Asia, capping Biden trip

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

By Nobuhiro Kubo, Michael Martina and Hyonhee Shin

(Reuters) -Russian and Chinese military planes conducted joint exercises to patrol the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, in a pointed farewell to U.S. President Joe Biden as he concluded an Asia trip that rankled Beijing.

The joint patrol lasted 13 hours over the Japanese and East China seas and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 jets, the defense ministry said in a statement.

Japan’s defense minister called the exercise a provocation, while a U.S. official said it revealed the depth of the two countries’ cooperation.

Planes from the Japanese and South Korean air force shadowed the Russian and Chinese jets for part of the exercise, the Russian ministry said.

Japan scrambled jets after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace while Tokyo was hosting the leaders of the Quad grouping of countries that includes the United States, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said.

Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels, Kishi said at a news conference.

He characterised the incident as a likely provocation by both Beijing and Moscow on a day when Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected leader, Anthony Albanese, were meeting in Tokyo.

“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said, adding it was the fourth such incident since November.

China’s defense ministry confirmed the joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific and called it part of an annual military exercise.

The move marks the first joint military exercise by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to a U.S. official, and it came at the tail end of Biden’s trip.

A joint strategic bomber exercise shows the depth of the two countries’ alignment, a senior U.S. administration official said.

“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” the official said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.

“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official said.

On Monday, Biden angered China by saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but he said later U.S. policy toward the self-ruled democratic island had not changed. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that should be reunited with the mainland.

Tuesday’s incursion was the first reported since new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. On Sunday, Yoon wrapped up his summit with Biden, where the two leaders pledged support for measures seen as countering China’s influence in the region, and criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.

South Korea’s military said it scrambled fighter jets after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone.

The Russian and Chinese aircraft entered and left the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (Korea ADIZ) in the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, several times through the day, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The aircraft, which included fighter jets and bombers from each side, did not violate South Korea’s airspace, it said.

South Korea had no warning of the apparent drills, a military source in Seoul said. When Seoul saw that the aircraft appeared to be headed toward the defense zone, it used hotlines to warn Chinese and Russian counterparts, the source said.

China responded that it was a regular exercise, the source added, while there was no response from Russia.

Unlike airspace, an air defense identification zone is usually an area where countries may unilaterally demand that foreign aircraft take special steps to identify themselves, with no international laws governing ADIZs.

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China and Russia hold first military exercise since Ukraine invasion

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

(Reuters) – China and Russia’s air forces conducted a joint aerial patrol on Tuesday over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific, China’s defence ministry said.

The patrol, the first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was part of an annual military exercise, the ministry said on its official website.

The two countries had previously held such patrols in 2019, 2020 and 2021 but in the latter half of the year.

Russia has faced a barrage of sanctions from Western countries over its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation”. Beijing has not condemned Russia’s attack and does not call it an invasion, but has urged a negotiated solution.

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