Putin draws parallels with Russian fight against Nazis in cut-down Victory Day parade

Putin draws parallels with Russian fight against Nazis in cut-down Victory Day parade
Instead of the big displays of weapons systems, a single WWII vintage T34 tank traversed Red Square to honour the fallen. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 10, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that civilisation is at a “crucial frontier” once again, and that he was fighting a war similar to that fought against the Nazis in WWII, during his speech at the Victory Day Parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9.

"Today civilisation is again at a crucial frontier," the president said. "A true war is again unleashed against our Motherland but we gave a rebuff to international terrorism and will also be able to defend Donbas residents and ensure our security," the president said at the celebration of the 78th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany.

The Victory Day parade is an emotionally charged affair for Russians as Soviet forces lost some 27mn in the fighting, of which about 13mn were Russians. The war touched nearly every family in the country as most families lost at least one man to the fighting.

Putin has long sought to link the struggle against the Nazis with his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has blamed Nazi right-wing forces of carrying out a coup d'état in Kyiv and refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, which it claims is a proxy puppet regime of Washington. This message has found wide appeal amongst the Russian public.

At the same time, Putin played the role of magnanimous defender of peace and highlighted that Russia sees no unfriendly or hostile peoples in the West or the East and desires a peaceful, free and stable future like the majority of people worldwide.

For Russia "there are no unfriendly, hostile peoples either in the West or in the East” and Russia, like an absolute majority of people on the planet, he wants to "see the future peaceful, free and stable," Putin stressed.

Hyping the war rhetoric Putin said the West has “forgotten” the debt it owes to Russia for its sacrifices in the war and its crucial role in defeating Hitler’s armies. Putin acknowledged the sacred memory of the defenders of the Motherland, expressing gratitude towards those who fought against Nazism from the United States, the United Kingdom and other allies in the war.

Pointedly, he also honoured regiments from Central Asia that fought under the Soviet flag at the time as well as Chinese soldiers who battled against Japanese militarism.

All five leaders of the Central Asian republics had travelled to Moscow at the last minute and largely unannounced to attend the parade in a show of support for Putin despite recent pressure by the White House to break off relations with Russia. The Central Asian states have been facilitating sanctions busting by allowing banned goods to transit their territory on their way to Russia.

The leaders of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, and Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, were also both at the parade.

Russia plays an outsized role in all the economies of these countries and developing Russia’s relations with this Eurasia group is a key plank of Moscow’s recently updated foreign policy concept.

The parade was much diminished from previous years. The traditional flypast by Russia’s air force was cancelled and the number of active regiments on display was much reduced, as most of Russia’s armed forces are on the front line in Ukraine. The parade of Russia’s advanced missiles and tanks was also cancelled, while a lone T34 tank, the mainstay of the mechanised armament in WWII, traversed Red Square alone, flying a red flag in honour of the fallen in that war.

More significantly, the march of the "Immortal Regiment" was also cancelled, as a precautionary measure, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Last week’s drone strike on the Kremlin on May 3, that the government blamed on Ukraine, led to heightened security in Moscow. Access to Red Square has been closed to the public for a month and police lined the streets leading to Red Square in a large-scale security operation.

The Immortal Regiment consists of regular Russians carrying photographs of their relatives that fell in WWII, but part of the reason the Kremlin cancelled this year’s march is that it was afraid that ordinary people would also carry photos of their loved ones that have fallen in the current conflict in Ukraine. With well over 100,000 estimated dead in this conflict, those photographs would be an uncomfortable reminder of how badly the military campaign in Ukraine is going.

Putin highlighted the importance of the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) gathered in Moscow, stating that all peoples of the USSR contributed to the victory in the Great Patriotic War. The presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan attended the parade, along with the prime minister of Armenia.

Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping are actively building a BRICS bloc of leading Emerging Markets (EMs) that are trying to improve their co-ordination to better represent their interests in what they hope will become a more “multipolar” world.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also celebrated Victory Day, as Ukraine suffered as much, if not more, under Nazi occupation than Russia did and it remains an important holiday there as well.

There was no large-scale parade in the Ukrainian capital and they have rejected the traditional orange and brown St George ribbons used in Russia to commemorate the day (the Russian equivalent of poppies) as a symbol of Russian aggression.

Zelenskiy also proposed moving Victory Day to May 8 like most of Europe and declaring May 9 a “Europe Day” instead.

The peace treaty that ended WWII was signed by Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at 22:43 CET on May 8 and went into effect at 23:01 CET, so most of Europe celebrates Victory Day on May 8, but as peace started already one minute past midnight in Moscow, Russia has always celebrated peace on May 9.

While Putin has accused Ukraine of being run by Nazis, Zelenskiy has also accused Russia of being a fascist state with a lot more justification, as Ukraine is now in an existential fight against Russia, similar to its own fight against the Nazis.

"All the old evil that modern Russia is bringing back will be defeated just as Nazism was defeated," Zelenskiy said, standing in front of a war memorial in Kyiv, over which a Ukrainian flag fluttered. "Just as we destroyed evil together then, we are destroying a similar evil together now," he added.

He said the Kremlin was responsible for "aggression and annexation, occupation and deportation," as well as "mass murder and torture".