On Muted War Holiday, Putin Tries to Justify Invasion of Ukraine

President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday used a scaled-down commemoration of triumph in World War II as a platform to denounce the West and make fictitious claims about Ukraine, equating his war of choice against that country with the Soviet Union’s fight for survival against Nazi Germany.

With Russia struggling on the battlefield, the annual celebration of Victory Day, Russia’s most important and deeply emotional secular holiday, was far more muted than in the past. But Mr. Putin tried to seize on his nation’s proud memory of what it calls the Great Patriotic War to rally support for the war he launched against Ukraine last year, explicitly comparing the two.

“A real war has been unleashed against our motherland again,” Mr. Putin said in a 10-minute speech in Moscow’s Red Square, whose themes were quickly repeated by state media. “Battles that decide the fate of our motherland have always become all-encompassing, patriotic and sacred.”

From the outset, Mr. Putin’s list of baseless justifications for his invasion has included echoes of World War II; in addition to claiming that Ukraine was merely a wayward part of Russia and posed a threat to the motherland, he said that Ukraine was ruled by Nazis and committed genocide against ethnic Russians. But his rhetoric has shifted from talk of a limited war — in his telling, one of self-defense — to drawing direct parallels to the colossal fight against Nazism.

Mr. Putin’s invasion failed to topple the government in Kyiv or seize all the territory he has claimed for Russia, his forces have suffered perhaps 200,000 troops killed or wounded, his war commanders openly criticize each other, and many people have fled the country. Now he faces the prospect of a counteroffensive by Ukraine, which has stepped up attacks in Russian-occupied territory and has been accused of striking within Russia, itself.

A photograph released by Russian state media showing President Vladimir V Putin during his speech.Credit…Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Reflecting that reality, Tuesday’s parade across the cobblestones of Red Square was considerably smaller than the vast spectacle of military might seen in past years, lacking the usual flyover by warplanes, or the rows of state-of-the-art tanks. Officials in more than 20 other Russian cities canceled their own military parades. Organizers also called off a popular march by civilians, held in many locations around the country, to honor veterans.

Officials cited security concerns, some saying that the processions of weaponry would be tempting targets to Ukraine, but the events are also politically sensitive. Pro-war commentators questioned a triumphant display of matériel at a time when Russia is struggling to equip its troops in Ukraine.

Moscow has criminalized open opposition to the war, but some analysts said the events could also have attracted shows of antiwar sentiment — even if only implicitly, by displaying photos of the dead.

Mr. Putin has long voiced bitter opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include former Soviet republics and satellites, insisting that Ukraine could not be allowed to grow closer to the West. On Tuesday, he accused the West of “pursuing the dissolution and the destruction of our country.”

But rather than undermine the Western bloc, his invasion has solidified them. Rather than pry Ukraine — previously seen as an iffy potential partner, at best — away from the West, it has made them committed partners.

In Washington, the Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said the Russian leader had upended the spirit of Victory Day. “It’s supposed to be about the end of war and bloodshed and suffering,” she said. “Instead Mr. Putin promised only more violence and spewed even more lies.”

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced another aid package for Ukraine, as much as $1.2 billion, including ammunition and equipment to aid Ukraine’s air defense systems, commercial satellite imagery services, and support for military training and maintenance.

The 59th Motorized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces firing a multiple rocket launcher at a Russian position on Saturday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

European leaders made a point of using the day to show off their rejuvenated solidarity, noting that they celebrate May 9 — the anniversary of the 1950 proposal that would evolve into the European Union —as Europe Day, and May 8 as the date of Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945.

Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany called for an expanded, more unified and militarily robust Europe, committed to supporting the Ukrainian war effort and opposing what he described as the Kremlin’s ambition to recreate its former empire.

The future, he said, “certainly does not belong to the revisionists who dream of national glory or crave imperial power.”

He noted that Ukraine, among other nations, is a candidate for E.U. membership — though he gave no sense of timing — and said that the bloc need better coordination in the production of weapons and ammunition, and in its defenses.

The E.U. leader Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, spent the day in Kyiv, meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky, and said she would call for new economic sanctions, aimed at people and companies that help Russia circumvent bans on importing Western goods like advanced microchips that go into weaponry.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Kyiv on Tuesday.Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hours earlier, Russia used cruise missiles to mount its fifth large aerial attack on Kyiv this month, but it appeared none hit their targets. Explosions shook the city Tuesday morning and some debris fell, but there were no reports of damage or injury. The Ukrainian military said it had shot down about 18 “air targets” over Kyiv. At least seven others were fired at other parts of the country, and most of those were also intercepted, the military said.

In Warsaw, protesters blocked the Russian ambassador, Sergey Andreev, from laying a wreath at a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. Last year, he was splashed with red liquid by protesters chanting “fascist!”

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, at a news conference in Berlin with her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, said that China “can play a significant role in ending the war if it chooses to do so,” she said.

China has not condemned the invasion, and instead grown closer to Russia and increased trade with it. The new sanctions Ms. von der Leyen proposed are not aimed at any nation in particular, she added, “but we expect all countries, and we also expect China, to exert appropriate influence on its companies in this sense.”

Mr. Qin responded to questions on Ukraine by saying that “simplification and emotionalization are not the solution.” He added, “China also did not cause this war, is not a party, but it is committed to peace negotiations.”

Reporting was contributed by Shashank Bengali, Oleg Matsnev, Christopher F. Schuetze, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Erika Solomon, Peter Baker, Ben Shpigel, Victoria Kim and Anushka Patil.

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