President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that the West has unleashed “a real war” against Russia, reprising a familiar refrain at scaled-down Victory Day celebrations that may reflect the toll the Ukraine conflict is taking on his forces.
Putin’s remarks came just hours after Moscow fired its latest barrage of cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, which Russia invaded more than 14 months ago. Ukrainian authorities said air defenses destroyed 23 of 25 missiles launched.
The Russian leader has repeatedly sought to paint his invasion of Ukraine as necessary to defend against a Western threat. Kyiv and its Western allies say they pose no such threat and that the war is meant to deter Western influence in a country that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.
“Today civilisation is once again at a decisive turning point,” Putin said at the annual commemorations celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. “A real war has been unleashed against our motherland.”
Putin has often used patriotic rhetoric that harkens back to the earlier war in an effort to rally his citizens and his forces — and May 9 is one of the most important dates in the Russian political calendar. But this year’s celebrations were markedly smaller, at least partially because of security concerns after several drone attacks have been reported inside Russia.
Normally an extensive procession of soldiers and military hardware, the parade in Moscow’s Red Square on Tuesday was shorter than usual and had fewer participants.
Some 8,000 troops took part — the lowest number since 2008. Even the parade in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, featured some 13,000 soldiers, and last year, 11,000 troops took part. There was no fly-over of military jets, and the event lasted less than the usual hour.
The traditional Immortal Regiment processions, in which crowds take to the streets holding portraits of relatives who died or served in World War II — a pillar of the holiday — were cancelled in multiple cities. Some speculated that authorities feared Russians might bring portraits of relatives who died in Ukraine, illustrating the scale of the Kremlin’s losses in the drawn-out conflict.
Russian media counted 24 cities that also scrapped military parades — another staple of the celebrations — for the first time in years. Regional officials blamed unspecified “security concerns” or vaguely referred to “the current situation” for the restrictions and cancellations. It wasn’t clear whether their decisions were taken in coordination with the Kremlin.
Last week, Russia claimed it foiled an attack by Ukrainian drones on the Kremlin that it called an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Putin. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied involvement.
There was no independent verification of the purported attack, which Russia authorities said occurred overnight but presented no evidence to support it.
On a tribune in Red Square, Putin praised soldiers taking part in the war in Ukraine and urged Russians to stand together.
“Our heroic ancestors proved that there is nothing stronger, more powerful and more reliable than our unity. There is nothing in the world stronger than our love for the motherland,” Putin said.
The guest list was also light amid Putin’s broad diplomatic isolation over the war. Initially, only one foreign leader was expected to attend this year’s parade — Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov. That was one more foreign guest than last year, when no leaders went.
At the last minute on Monday, officials announced that the leaders of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would head to Moscow as well.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian air force said in a Telegram post that eight Kalibr cruise missiles were fired from carriers in the Black Sea toward the east and 17 from strategic aircraft.
The missiles came hours before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s executive branch, arrived in Kyiv.
Ukraine is keen to join the EU, but membership has many requirements and is still a long way off. Ukraine is also hoping to join NATO, after moving close to the Western military alliance during the war.
In the latest help from a NATO member, the US was expected to announce Tuesday that it will provide $1.2 billion more in long-term military aid to Ukraine to further bolster its air defenses.