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Experts predict Putin wants to celebrate a victory in Ukraine on the May 9 annual Russian holiday to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. But war researchers have said the signs are building that it will instead be a day to mobilise Russia.
In their latest study, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) argue that May 9 appears to have shifted in meaning from a deadline to an inflection point to galvanise a wider mobilisation.
They say the Russian leadership has realised it needs time to achieve its goals in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The experts say that Moscow now needs to stage a major offensive in the summer.
According to Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds, rhetoric in Russia is changing.
Statements made by Moscow have long been about a conflict with NATO.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently emphasised that the military alliance is waging “a proxy war in Ukraine”.
Russia is also reportedly preparing itself for a long war.
Experts from the Centre for European Policy Analysis (Cepa) write: “Russia’s military believes that limiting the war’s initial goals is a serious error. They now argue that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but NATO.”
They say that the Russian military is therefore calling for all-out war, which would include a large mobilisation.
Defence expert Mike Mazarr from US think tank Rand Corporation writes: “It could be Russia posturing to scare off Ukraine’s friends… It could be accurate now – and Putin could change course. But the risk of such a scenario cannot be ignored.”
The speculation comes as Ukraine acknowledged on Friday it was taking heavy losses in Russia’s assault in the east, but said Russia’s losses were even worse.
Having failed in an assault on Kyiv last month, Russia is now trying to fully capture two eastern provinces known as the Donbas.
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Ukraine has acknowledged losing control of some towns and villages there since the assault began, but says Moscow’s gains have come at a massive cost to a Russian force already worn down from its earlier defeat near the capital.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said: “We have serious losses but the Russians’ losses are much much bigger…They have colossal losses.”
Mr Zelensky’s office said Russia was pounding the entire front line in the eastern Donetsk region with rockets, artillery, mortar bombs and aircraft.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russia was shelling positions along the line of contact to prevent the Ukrainians from regrouping.
US President Joe Biden this week called on Congress to send as much as £26 billion ($33bn) to help Ukraine withstand Russia’s attack.
The move dramatically increases US involvement in the conflict with Washington and its allies now sending heavy weapons with an aim not just to repel Russia’s attack but to weaken its armed forces so it cannot menace its neighbours again.
Mr Biden said: “We need this bill to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom. The cost of this fight – it’s not cheap – but caving to aggression is going to be more costly.”
The bloodiest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe of the war have been in the port city of Mariupol, which has been reduced to a wasteland by two months of Russian bombardment and siege.
Ukraine says 100,000 civilians are still in the city, which is mostly occupied by Russia.
Hundreds of civilians are holed up with the city’s last remaining defenders in underground bunkers beneath a huge steel works.
Mr Zelensky’s office said an operation was planned on Friday to get civilians out of the plant, but provided no details.
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg
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