On a day meant to showcase his country’s military might, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent his Victory Day speech justifying his decision to invade Ukraine, as a smaller-than-usual parade of Russian forces rolled through Red Square.
State media reported that 11,000 troops and 131 military vehicles took part in the annual spectacle, which celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany. That’s down from the 12,000 soldiers and 191 vehicles that took part last year, when attendance was restricted by the pandemic.
More than 22,000 troops took part in the 2020 event, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
An air display planned for Monday, which was supposed to include warplanes roaring over Moscow in a flying Z – the main symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – was cancelled at the last minute. State media reported that the decision was made because of the weather, although the skies were clear over the capital at the time of the parade.
The real reason for the shrunken display of power was the unexpectedly fierce resistance the Russian army has encountered since Mr. Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24. A war that Kremlin officials expected would be over within days has now entered its 11th week, with Russian forces having made only limited territorial gains in the south and east of Ukraine.
Shortly after the invasion began, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-run RT news channel, joked that this year’s Victory Day parade would be held in Kyiv. Instead, Ukrainian forces have battered the invaders, killing thousands of soldiers – including 12 top generals – and destroying hundreds of pieces of military equipment.
An early effort to capture Kyiv was abandoned last month, with Russia redeploying its forces to the east of the country, which is now the main front of the war.
In a brief speech Monday, Mr. Putin told the assembled soldiers and veterans – some of whom were said to have recently returned from Ukraine – that he ordered the invasion, which the Kremlin refers to as a “special military operation,” because Russia had no other choice.
He claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine had been seeking nuclear weapons and, together with NATO, had been planning an attack on territories claimed by Russia.
“In Kyiv, they announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the NATO bloc began actively taking military control of territories adjacent to ours. As such, an absolutely unacceptable threat to us was systematically created – and moreover directly on our borders,” he said. “Preparations were under way for another punitive operation in Donbas, the invasion of our historical lands, including Crimea.”
Donbas is a region of southeastern Ukraine that has been under the control of Russian-backed fighters since early 2014. Russia illegally seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine earlier that same year.
Mr. Putin spent much of his 11-minute address trying to link the Second World War fight against fascism to the current war. He said he was forced to invade Ukraine because of the presence of neo-Nazis in the country, even though President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and far-right groups have limited political influence.
“The speech was a toxic mix of grievances, defiance and self-righteousness that we have come to expect from Putin,” said Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “He lives in this make-believe world where the past and the present are indistinguishable.”
In remarks made after the speech, Mr. Putin told Russian media that the military operation in Ukraine was succeeding. “All plans are being fulfilled. A result will be achieved – on that account there is no doubt,” he was quoted as telling the official Tass news service.
Ukrainian and Western officials had feared Mr. Putin would use his Victory Day speech to somehow escalate the conflict. But predictions that he would formally declare war and order a general mobilization, or perhaps threaten the use of nuclear weapons, proved unfounded.
The scale of Russia’s military losses in Ukraine is disputed. While Ukraine claimed at the end of April to have killed 22,800 Russian troops since the start of the war, Russia has thus far reported 1,351 deaths. The British government estimates that about 15,000 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.
By way of comparison, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 15,000 troops during 10 years of war in Afghanistan. Analysts have suggested it will take the Russian military years to recover from the setbacks it has suffered through 2½ months of fighting in Ukraine.
In his speech, Mr. Putin briefly acknowledged Russian military losses in Ukraine – without mentioning any numbers. “The death of each one of our soldiers and officers is our shared grief and an irreparable loss for their friends and relatives. The state, regions, companies and public organizations will do everything to care for and help these families,” he said.
Also missing from Red Square on Monday were the foreign dignitaries who usually attend Victory Day celebrations. While the Kremlin said it had not invited any foreign leaders to the event, the absence of even Moscow’s closest allies – such as Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko – was striking.
In a video released Monday, Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine would not allow Russia to claim sole ownership of the victory that many Ukrainians also fought and died for in the Second World War.
“We are proud of our ancestors who together with other nations in the anti-Hitler coalition defeated Nazism. And we will not allow anyone to annex this victory. We will not allow it to be appropriated,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky was filmed walking down Kyiv’s central Khreshchatyk Avenue, where Russian troops would likely have held this year’s parade if Ms. Simonyan’s prediction of a swift conquest had come true. “On the Day of Victory over Nazism, we are fighting for a new victory,” Mr. Zelensky said. “There is no invader who can rule over our free people.”
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