President Vladimir Putin will lead anniversary celebrations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on Monday as Russian forces intensified attacks on Ukraine in one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe since the second world war.
The parade comes two days after Russian forces bombed a village school in eastern Ukraine killing about 60 people, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.
The governor of the Luhansk region said about 90 people were sheltering at the school in Bilohorivka on Saturday when it was bombed.
“As a result of a Russian strike on Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region, about 60 people were killed, civilians, who simply hid at the school, sheltering from shelling,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. There was no response from Moscow to the news.
Putin, Russia’s leader since 1999, has in recent years used Victory Day to needle the West from a tribune in Red Square before a parade of troops, tanks, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
This year, a fly-past over the nine domes of St Basil’s Cathedral will include supersonic fighters, strategic bombers and, for the first time since 2010, the Il-80 “doomsday” command plane, which would carry Russia’s top brass in the event of a nuclear war.
Putin has repeatedly likened the war in Ukraine – which he wrongly casts as a battle against dangerous “Nazi”-inspired nationalists in Ukraine – to the challenge the Soviet Union faced when Adolf Hitler invaded in 1941.
“Our common duty is to prevent the renaissance of nazism which has brought so much suffering to people of different countries,” Putin said in a message to the peoples of 12 former Soviet republics including Ukraine and Georgia.
Ukraine and its allies reject the accusation of nazism in Ukraine and that Russia is fighting for survival against an aggressive West, saying the Kremlin leader unleashed an unprovoked war in an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Union.
Putin, who has repeatedly expressed resentment over the way the West treated Russia after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, says Ukraine has been used by the United States to threaten Russia.
US president Joe Biden has cast Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a fight in a much broader global battle between democracy and autocracy and has repeatedly called Putin a criminal war. In a speech in Warsaw in March Biden said the former KGB spy cannot remain in power.
Russia denies Ukrainian and western accusations that its forces have committed war crimes since the 24 February invasion.
A day before the symbolic Victory Day parade, the Black Sea city of Odesa came under repeated missile strikes. In Mariupol, the remaining Ukrainian fighters in the Azovstal steelworks in the besieged port city staged a press conference on Sunday saying they had been “abandoned” by the government as Russian attacks continued.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Luhansk governor, where the bombed school was located, told the Guardian he believed the 30 people who escaped had been outside in the grounds of the building. He said he had little hope for those who were under rubble.
“Unfortunately, they are probably dead,” he said. “Because the building collapsed. Besides, an air bomb is not a missile, its explosion produces extremely high temperatures. That’s why most likely people haven’t survived.”
Putin has stated he intends to take the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions by 9 May when Russia marks Victory Day.
In an address to mark Ukraine’s 8 May remembrance and reconciliation day, Zelenskiy said his country paid homage to all those who helped defeat Adolf Hitler and accused Russia of repeating his crimes.
He said: “Every year on 8 May, together with the entire civilized world, we honor everyone who defended the planet from nazism during world war two. Millions of lost lives, crippled destinies, tortured souls and millions of reasons to say to evil: never again!
“We knew the price our ancestors paid for this wisdom. We knew how important it is to preserve it and pass it on to posterity. But we had no idea that our generation would witness the desecration of the words, which, as it turned out, are not the truth for everyone.
“This year we say ‘Never again’ differently. We hear ‘Never again’ differently. It sounds painful, cruel. Without an exclamation, but with a question mark. You say: never again? Tell Ukraine about it.”
Zelenskiy went on: “On 24 February, the word ‘never’ was erased. Shot and bombed. By hundreds of missiles at 4am, which woke up the entire Ukraine. We heard terrible explosions. We heard: again!”
Illya Samoilenko, a lieutenant in the Azov regiment in Mariupol, said his fellow soldiers would be executed if captured by the Russians and that surrender would be a “gift” to the enemy. “We are witnesses of Russian crimes,” he said, from the city’s Azovstal steelworks. “Surrender is not an option because Russia is not interested in our lives.”
Meanwhile, the last civilians rescued from the besieged complex reached safety in Ukrainian held territory late on Sunday evening. The journey of just over 200km took two days, as the convoy of buses was held for hours at Russian checkpoints and those inside interrogated.
There were 51 civilians who had been sheltering in the Azovstal complex, and about 120 others who had walked or hitched lifts across the city to a pickup point in a ruined shopping mall. “I didn’t think we would make it out alive, so I don’t have any plans for my future,” said Natalia, who worked for Azovstal all her adult life and then sheltered for over two month in its network of bunkers.
In other developments:
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau promised new weapons and other equipment for Ukraine After a surprise visit to the country during which he toured Irpin, a Kyiv suburb and scene of some of the worst early attacks by Russia was among western leaders who made. He also said Canada would remove trade tariffs on all Ukrainian imports to Canada for next year.
The UK expanded its sanctions against Russia to include punitive import tariffs on Russian precious metalsas well as export bans on certain UK products.
The US president’s wife, Jill Biden, met with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska on another unannounced visit on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day. Meanwhile U2’s Bono and the Edge performed in a Kyiv bomb shelter.
Reuters contributed to this report