Explosions derailing trains, power lines cut and mysterious fires: increasing acts of sabotage inside Russia this week are overshadowing preparations for Moscow’s most important celebration -- WWII Victory Day on May 9.

President Vladimir Putin has sought to portray Russia as safe and stable while troops have been fighting in Ukraine for more than a year and the death toll mounts.

Even as authorities try to recruit more men to refill thinned ranks, they have tried to reassure those at home that the conflict is distant and does not pose a threat to Russian territory.

But a series of incidents in recent days have served as a reminder that Russia, too, is exposed to enemy blows -- even at hundreds of kilometres from the Ukrainian front.


They have also come at a precarious time for the Kremlin: days before the May 9 grand celebrations, when Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over the Nazis in what has become a central event for Putin’s rule.

On Tuesday, an explosive device derailed a freight train in a region bordering Ukraine for the second day in a row.

After a year of reports of sabotage on the railroads, Monday’s derailing was the first time Russian officials confirmed an attack on this scale.

On Monday too, some 900 kilometres away in a forest south of Saint Petersburg, another explosive device damaged power lines, with the FSB security service calling it an act of “sabotage.”

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Over the past five days, two fuel depots also caught fire, in and around the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

The Kremlin on Tuesday acknowledged the threat.

“Of course, we are aware that the Kyiv regime, which is behind a number of such attacks -- terrorist attacks -- plans to continue this line,” its spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“All our intelligence services are doing everything necessary to ensure security.”

Ukraine has followed its usual line of not claiming responsibility for the attacks, which came as Kyiv said it was finalising preparations for a spring offensive announced weeks ago.


- May 9 ‘crucial’ to Putin -

Faced with growing risks, traditional May 9 parades have been cancelled in major cities near the Ukraine border, but also in some more distant Russian regions.

For now, the main parade on Red Square in Moscow will go ahead.

The main challenge for the authorities is to ensure that everything goes without a glitch.

Televised across Russia and showing off Moscow’s military might, the parade is the main event of the year and essential to Putin’s legitimacy.

“Incidents are not desirable: they will interfere with achieving the propaganda goal and reduce the feeling of security, especially among Muscovites,” Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Centre, said.

The parade usually brings together crowds who come with families to watch tanks and soldiers march through Moscow.

Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has promoted a patriotic cult around the 1945 Soviet victory over the Nazis, used to stoke patriotism and boost his legitimacy as the heir of Soviet power.

“It is the only ‘glue’ that unites the nation,” Kolesnikov said.


“Now, the holiday is doubly important,” he said.

“Because it is crucial to Putin to once again insert in the public conscience the simple, but crazy, idea that his ‘special operation’ (in Ukraine) is a continuation” of the war against Hitler.

The Kremlin continues to use the memory of the Soviet war effort to justify its offensive in Ukraine, claiming it is fighting “fascists” supported by the West.

- Hunting down saboteurs -

Since the Kremlin launched its Ukraine offensive in February last year, drones have regularly hit Russian territory, some of which have crashed in the Moscow region.

In March, the incursion of armed men from Ukraine into the Bryansk region caused shock, shattering the feeling of the border being impenetrable.

Army recruitment centres and railways have also regularly been attacked, with authorities hunting down potential saboteurs.

Moscow has tightened its laws against sabotage, and treason and spying cases are multiplying.

On Wednesday, the FSB said it prevented a series of attacks in Russian-occupied Crimea, including assassinations.

The independent media outlet Mediazona last month reported that more than 65 people, a third of them minors, have been detained in the past few months in around 20 regions of the country on charges of railway sabotage.


The Kremlin, meanwhile, says the only way forward is to continue its offensive.

This week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The special military operation is happening, it is aimed at eliminating the threat to our country at the root”.

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