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Western officials warn of escalation in Ukraine on Russia's Victory Day

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

First Lady Jill Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine today. She crossed the border from neighboring Slovakia and visited a school together with her Ukrainian counterpart, Olena Zelenska. The wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been in hiding with their children since the war began. Meanwhile, Russian forces are continuing their deadly offensive in eastern Ukraine, where local officials said today that as many as 60 people are missing and feared dead after a Russian airstrike hit a school. The building was being used as a bomb shelter.

And all of this comes as Russia prepares for V Day tomorrow. Every year on May 9, Russia marks the anniversary of the end of World War II with a major military parade in Moscow. But this year, that parade is expected to be different because of the war in Ukraine. We wanted to hear more about that and why what we might see matters, so we called Jack Detsch, Pentagon and national security reporter for Foreign Policy magazine. He's written about this, and he's with us now. Jack Detsch, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JACK DETSCH: Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You co-wrote a piece last week saying Western analysts expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to use tomorrow's V Day parade in Moscow to further his cause in Ukraine. As briefly as he can, how exactly would he do that?

DETSCH: So, Michel, Western officials expect that Putin sort of has a menu of options available to him to reign in Victory Day, which is a major celebration of Russia's victory on the eastern front in World War II. This could be a mass mobilization of the army to pour more troops into Ukraine for the Donbas offensive. We've already seen about 65% of the ground troops in, but more could potentially be coming. There could also be provocations in Mariupol, the besieged city where just a few hundred people are holding out at the Azovstal steel factory, potentially parades there with some of the captured Ukrainian prisoners as well - so a lot of options potentially for Russia to either escalate the conflict or to make things tough on the West and kind of beat their chest in the face of a serious Western assault of sanctions and more weapons coming in.

MARTIN: What if none of that happens? What would that say? I mean, as we are speaking now, we are waiting to see. You, people who follow this, clearly the Ukrainians, military analysts all over the world are looking to see what signal is sent by this parade. But what if none of that happens? What would that say? How would you read that?

DETSCH: This is still an opportunity for Putin to make a defiant stand in the face of all the pressure that's come from the west. And the parade is basically the Kremlin's way of saying to the United States and NATO that despite these billions of dollars in bombs, rockets and bullets and despite these bruising sanctions, that you can't hold Russia down, and calling a pariah state a pariah state is not going to make a difference here. So this is Putin's way of making a defiant stand, despite all the pressure that we've seen from the West.

MARTIN: So just to remind people that Putin has claimed that the war in Ukraine is a fight to, quote, unquote, "denazify" (ph) its neighbor, which Ukraine and Western nations have denounced as a complete fabrication on Putin's part. It's a ridiculous claim, but that claim does connect back to World War II and victory over real Nazis back then. Is there a way in which Putin is expected to connect those two thoughts tomorrow? Like, how would he do that?

DETSCH: Well, certainly Putin could do this through the speech he's expected to make in Red Square tomorrow. It's difficult how he's going to come up with more specific evidence. But just on Victory Day, you know, across the former Soviet Union, this is a time when Russians and Russian speakers basically celebrate the anniversary by parades, by massive reenactments of the war. So Putin, even if he can't come up with the evidence that he wants to, can make the visceral case that Ukrainians are the natural embodiment of the Nazis, despite no evidence to the claim.

MARTIN: There's speculation that Russia's V Day parade itself will be affected by the war and that it will have to be smaller because Russia's sent so much of its hardware to Ukraine, so there's less of it to show off in a parade in Moscow. From your reporting, do you think that's the case, and do you think that's the kind of thing that the public would notice?

DETSCH: Yeah. So tomorrow, if you're an observer in Red Square, you might see a much smaller grouping of Russian vehicles, tanks, artillery, even fighter jets than you've seen in previous years, potentially 35 to 50% less ground forces than you've seen, with Putin sending so many of those into Ukraine already, even some of them with a cross of Saint George on them, a celebratory symbol of the Russian military. The Russians also plan to fly fighter jets in a Z formation, the Russian symbol for the war that's been quite controversial around the world. But they'll do it with outmoded MiG-29 fighter jets. Those are the same fighter jets that Poland has wanted to supply the Ukrainians to fight the Russians. So it's going to be noticeably different from previous years. Whether that resonates in Russia is to be seen.

MARTIN: You said something earlier I want to go back to. You said that there are reports that Russia is considering displaying prisoners of war. That would be a grotesque violation of the Geneva Convention. And I just wonder, what reaction would that invite from Western allies?

DETSCH: It could invite a serious response in terms of more penalties. Look; what we've seen from the West is just a claim that Russia is behaving as a pariah state in this invasion of Ukraine. So that could - that argument could deepen. We could see stronger sanctions if Putin is doing such a parade, which would indicate more serious war crimes in Ukraine than we've even seen. And remember, with Russia's so-called liberation of Mariupol, the besieged city, we still haven't seen the depth of the atrocities there. We've seen on satellite imagery two massive grave sites popping up in that city, but we still don't know. The Ukrainians are saying 20,000 people have died in Mariupol since the beginning of the war, but we still haven't seen the grotesque images out of that city in the way that we've seen in the liberated areas around Kyiv - so potentially much worse to come on the front of atrocities.

MARTIN: That was Jack Detsch, Pentagon and national security reporter for Foreign Policy magazine. His latest piece on Russia's V Day celebrations is available online. Jack Detsch, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

DETSCH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.