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Putin says ‘real war’ being waged against Russia in muted Victory Day parade

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech at the Victory Parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, where he said a “real war” was being waged against Russia. (Video: Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that a “real war” is being waged against Russia amid muted Victory Day celebrations on Tuesday, with many mass events canceled over security concerns after last week’s alleged drone attack on the Kremlin and a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The event marking the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany 78 years ago was also marred by an outburst from Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a key participant in the war on Ukraine and a vocal critic of the military leaders managing it. The chief of the Wagner mercenary group said in a video message that today’s Russians don’t deserve to celebrate the World War II victory of their grandfathers.

In his seven-minute speech, Putin said: “A real war has once again been waged against our homeland. Today, civilization is at a critical juncture.”

“We want to see a future of peace, freedom and stability,” added the leader, who more than a year ago ordered what he calls “the special military operation” in Ukraine that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Putin quickly pivoted to blaming the war on “Western elites.”

Wagner boss threatens to pull out of Bakhmut, slams Russian military

“We believe that any ideology of superiority is inherently disgusting, criminal and deadly,” he said. “However, Western globalists and elites still talk about their exclusivity; pit people and split society; provoke bloody conflicts and upheavals; sow hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism; and destroy traditional family values that make a person a person.”

Putin then reiterated his claim that Ukraine has become “hostage to a coup d’etat and the criminal regime formed by its Western masters” and “a bargaining chip in the implementation of their cruel, selfish plans.”

Under Putin, the May 9 parades and marches designed to commemorate the World War II victory in Europe and honor its remaining veterans have morphed into a showcase of Russian military might, with giant Iskander ballistic missiles and modern Armata tanks rolling through the streets of Moscow.

But Tuesday’s display was much more modest compared with those of previous years. Military experts noted that the 45-minute parade featured about 50 vehicles, a drastic decrease from the 2021 event that showcased 131 pieces, and there was only one tank — a World War II-era T-34. The traditional flyover of military aircraft was canceled.

And while Putin preached unity and support for the war among Russian people, the discord in his ranks grew stronger. The moment the parade ended, Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary boss, released a half-hour video in which he lashed out against the Russian Defense Ministry. He accused one regular unit of abandoning positions near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and the top brass of not supplying his soldiers with enough ammunition.

“Victory Day marks the victory of our grandfathers; we did not deserve a single bit of this victory. We’re all set on TV, [but] the Ukrainian offensive will be on the ground,” Prigozhin barked into the camera.

Criticism of the war is essentially outlawed in Russia, with hundreds of activists detained and thousands in exile. But Prigozhin, who rose in prominence last year by sending his private army to aid Putin’s war effort, has been permitted to criticize the regular army with seeming impunity.

“Happy Victory Day to all of our grandfathers, and what we are celebrating is a big question. You just need to remember about them and don’t [mess] around on Red Square,” he added, using a profanity.

Prigozhin has been engaged in a months-long bitter public campaign against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he accused of incompetence and of “stealing” Wagner’s victories in Ukraine. The rivalry reached a fever pitch last week, when Prigozhin said he would pull his fighters from Bakhmut, so far the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. He claimed that his units are receiving just a fraction of necessary munitions and are suffering major losses as a result.

Russian forces have been locked in a grinding battle there since last summer and have not ousted Ukrainian forces, leaving Putin with no military gains to boast of in his speech.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also noted the lack of Russian progress in Bakhmut on Tuesday. “Russia’s leadership wasn’t able to sell [a victory] in Bakhmut, because they couldn’t seize it … before May 9.”

The parade was the first public event that Putin has attended since Moscow’s stunning accusation last week that Ukraine sent two drones flying toward the Kremlin fortress in what Russian officials labeled an “assassination attempt” on their leader — a claim broadly rejected by political and military experts. Kyiv denied any responsibility.

Victory Day commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War that left more than 20 million Russians dead. The anniversary normally features parades across the country.

This year, for the first time, the Victory Parade was broadcast on large-format outdoor screens around the city and on the subway.

Security was tight in the Russian capital, with special forces police patrolling the center and stopping and inspecting commercial vans, while police vehicles waited on standby in side streets. Red flags banded with the orange and black Saint George ribbon lined Moscow’s streets, and screens on street corners depicted scenes of World War II, underscoring the Kremlin’s attempt to equate the Soviet sacrifice in that past war with its present fight to crush Ukrainian resistance.

Putin was accompanied by some of his few remaining allies, including the leaders of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia and Belarus. Almost all of them labeled their visits as “working trips,” during which they planned to participate in Victory Day ceremonies.

Regional officials have been anxious about holding huge public events amid the Ukraine war — which is increasingly felt by Russians at home after a series of unexplained fires and explosions — even before the drones blew up over what is supposed to be one of the most protected buildings in the country.

At least 20 cities across Russia canceled Victory Day parades, with regional officials saying they didn’t want to “provoke the enemy with large amounts of equipment and military personnel” gathered in one place or out of concern that returning Russian soldiers may perceive the sound of fireworks “in a completely different way.”

The Immortal Regiment, an annual procession that draws millions of Russians carrying photographs of relatives who fought in World War II to march across most major cities, was canceled. Putin had traditionally led the march in Moscow himself.

But the drone incident, which some analysts speculated was a false-flag attack while others said it might have been carried out by Ukrainian partisans or anti-Kremlin diversion groups working from inside the country, has been weaponized by the Russian authorities to galvanize public support for the war and justify the drastically scaled-back events.

Since the supposed attacks, more than half of Russia’s regions have banned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, while Moscow residents complain about increased GPS jamming in the city center disrupting taxi services. The capital’s street police officers have been reportedly handed binoculars with the order to watch out for more drones in the sky.

Spike in Russian combat deaths fuels fears of worse carnage to come

Seven attending foreign leaders is high for the Kremlin’s main Victory Day parade in recent years. Last year, Putin watched the event alone. Seven leaders from former Soviet countries attended in 2020, when the ceremony was pushed from May 9 to June 22 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 70th Victory Day anniversary in 2015 included the highest number of foreign guests, with dozens of representatives arriving from around the world.

Some commentators suggested the expanded guest list may be a tactic to make any diversion attempt too risky.

“This dramatically reduces the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the parade on Red Square by Ukraine,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political scientist and former lawmaker, wrote in his Telegram blog.

In recent years, Putin has been increasingly focused on ensuring that Russians are presented with a simplified and glorified version of their country’s history, one that delves into its many conquests, including the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The victorious narrative and the legacy it carries into the future is peddled by the state bureaucratic machine across all groups of Russian society, starting as early as kindergarten.

Since last year, schools and kindergartens introduced thematic classes meant to “explain” to young Russians the importance of what the Kremlin calls “the special military operation” in Ukraine.

This Victory Day, the presentation of military themes to the country’s youths has reached a new level, according to local media reports, with kindergartners and other schoolchildren writing letters to soldiers and making crafts “to raise morale” or teachers staging performances to “instill a sense of pride in the heroism of our people and a steady interest in the army” into their students.

David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

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Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.