Vladimir Putin says Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine was a pre-emptive move to ward off aggression, accusing the West of “preparing for the invasion of our land, including Crimea”.
“The danger was rising by the day,” he claimed, adding Russia’s response was a “forced, timely and the only correct decision by a sovereign, powerful and independent country.”
The Russian president made the claims about NATO expansion and also Kyiv’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons – which Ukrainian and western officials have denied and called false – in a speech while leading anniversary celebrations in Moscow of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
Victory Day in Russia – an annual commemoration – is the country’s most important holiday and a source of national pride, marked by a huge parade of soldiers and military hardware through Red Square.
Putin hits out at West’s ‘invasion plan’ – follow latest updates
But the backdrop of this year’s spectacle of tanks, planes, rockets and missiles is different.
Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine – one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe since the Second World War, which Mr Putin has described as a “special military operation”.
Intense attacks from Russian forces continue across the war-ravaged country, with ordinary Russians being told they are once again fighting against “Nazism”.
Today’s celebrations kick-started with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu being driven around Red Square, saluting troops.
Then President Putin took center stage and told his armed forces they were fighting for their country now.
“You are fighting for our people in Donbas, for the security of our motherland, its future,” he said, attempting to justify the battle in Ukraine.
However, he did not take the opportunity to officially declare war or further mobilize the Russian military.
“The death of every soldier and officer is painful for us,” he said. “The state will do everything to take care of these families.”
He finished his speech with a rallying cry to the assembled soldiers: “For Russia, For Victory, Hurray!”
In pictures: Putin showcases Russia’s military might
Former head of the British Army, General Lord Dannatt described the parade as “ridiculous – in the context of what is going on in the battlefields of Ukraine today”.
“We know how poorly the Russian military has done,” he said. “This pomp and circumstance looks very professional, but when it came to the mud and the blood in Ukraine, they were found wanting.”
Britain’s defense secretary Ben Wallace said: “Really what President Putin wants is the Russian people and the world to be awed and intimidated by the ongoing memorial to militarism.
“I believe the ongoing and unprovoked conflict in Ukraine does nothing but dishonor those same soldiers.”
Claim self-defense, assume the high-ground morale and label NATO the aggressor – in the absence of any actual victory on the battlefield this was really the best that Vladimir Putin could do
No big announcements; no unexpected declarations. In the absence of any actual victory on the battlefield this was really the best that Vladimir Putin could do at this year’s Victory parade, overshadowed as it is by the horrors in Ukraine. Claim self-defense, assume the moral high-ground and label NATO the aggressor as he has done many times over the past few months.
Victory Day is first and foremost a commemorative holiday for the people of Russia. For the Commander-in-Chief, it is a moment to reassure them – that the cause in Ukraine is a noble one – rather than instill fear that their sons might be drafted. If mobilization happens, and there are plenty of rumors that it will, that’s best saved for another day when Russian families aren’t celebrating what really is thought of as a “sacred” holiday in the Russian calendar.
Mobilization also won’t necessarily tip things the way Russia wants them to go. Sending in hastily trained men with little military background could be more of a curse than a blessing. Defining this as a “special military operation” rather than an actual conflict gives the Russian people the impression that it is short, sharp and targeted. They can worry about their own lives because this will all be over soon, or so the logic goes.
But will it? That is the eternal question, burning as bright as the eternal flame at the many Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in all the countries which fought in the last century’s horrific World Wars. Always a reminder, as they should be, of how much is at stake now.
Putin’s potential craziness
The Russian leader’s performance could be a sign there will be an end to the war, Sir Tony Brenton, former UK ambassador to Russia, said.
Speaking to Sky News, the top British diplomat said Mr Putin had recently shown “disturbing signs” of “losing it”. But he said his speech today was “consistent” and a “very professional performance”.
While Sir Tony said he did not agree with the message – which sought to justify Russia’s invasion and hit out at NATO – he said it had “pushed all the right patriotic buttons”.
“It is rather encouraging that it leaves me with the feeling that we are dealing with a rational individual there with whom hopefully in time it will be possible to do a sensible deal to bring this whole mess to an end,” he said.
Subscribe to the Ukraine War Diaries on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Spreaker
Lord Dannatt agreed, saying the issue of Mr Putin’s rationality is important because any conflict with a nuclear power like Russia carries the risk that nuclear weapons could be used.
“It’s the irrationality of Putin’s potential craziness that is the real worry, particularly if he’s not well. Now, he looks pretty healthy to me this morning,” said the former British Army chief.
He noted President Putin appeared rather “puffy” and struggling to move “freely” as he walked around the parade.