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Putin invokes World War II to justify invasion

Putin invokes World War II to justify invasion

4 min. 09.05.2022 From our online archive
“We will drive the occupiers out of our own land for sure,” Zelenskiy said in a video address
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Red Square after the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Red Square after the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022.
Photo credit: AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the annual display of military might on Moscow’s Red Square marking victory against Nazi Germany to justify his faltering 10-week-old invasion of Ukraine, which he compared to the battle during World War II.

“Today, you’re defending what our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers fought for,” Putin said in a speech before the military parade on Monday, flanked by veterans at the 9 May Victory Day celebration of the German defeat in 1945. 

He spoke as air-raid sirens rang out in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and Russian forces continued shelling across the front lines in the country’s east and south, while the US and its allies discussed imposing more sanctions to punish Moscow for the invasion. Putin made no major announcements in his speech, despite speculation that he might formally declare war.

In Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also invoked World War II. “The Nazis were expelled from Yalta, Simferopol, Kerch and the whole of Crimea. Mariupol was liberated,” he said, cataloguing cities now occupied by Russia. “We will drive the occupiers out of our own land for sure,” he said in a video address walking down Khreshchatyk Street, the iconic boulevard where parades are held.

“We will not allow anyone to annex this victory, we won’t allow it to be appropriated,” he said. This “isn’t a war of two armies, this is a war of two worldviews,” Zelenskiy said.

Some Western officials had suggested Putin might use the World War II anniversary to officially declare war in the conflict that the Kremlin calls a “special military operation.” This would allow Russia to order a mass mobilization, potentially helping to jump-start the stalled campaign. The Kremlin has denied any such plans and Putin made no mention of them in his speech. Such a move would force the Russian population to confront the reality of the conflict, which has caused major casualties and which Putin has sought so far to keep at arm’s length from the public.

He reiterated his claims that the conflict with Ukraine and North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations that are supplying it with weapons was “inevitable,” asserting the invasion was in response to preparations to attack Russian separatist-controlled Donbas and invade Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Putin annexed in 2014. Ukraine and its allies reject that, noting that it was Russia that massed troops on the border last year. 

Putin has made the Soviet Union’s triumph in what’s known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, in which 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union died, a touchstone of his efforts to stoke patriotic feeling. This year, with tens of thousands of troops fighting in Ukraine and Russia facing unprecedented sanctions from the US and its allies, the event has taken on even greater significance. 

This year’s display included 11,000 troops and weaponry including tanks, air-defence systems and nuclear-missile launchers. A planned flyover by military jets and helicopters in Moscow that was to have included some flying in formation in the shape of Z - the Latin letter that’s become a symbol of the Ukraine offensive - was cancelled because of cloudy weather conditions, state-run Tass news service reported, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Weather in the capital and other cities including Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg where the fly-over was annulled was partly cloudy.

Russia’s military progress has so far fallen short of the Kremlin’s hope of a quick and decisive triumph. Fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed up by increasing arms supplies to Kyiv from the US and its allies have limited Moscow’s gains.  

The chief of Russia’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, was not shown in state-television coverage of the parade, in contrast to last year, when he appeared prominently.

So far, the only major military triumph Putin has wrested is the still-incomplete fall of the southern port city of Mariupol after weeks of siege and bombardment that killed at least 20,000 civilians, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukrainian fighters are continuing to resist at the city’s giant Azovstal steel plant.

Russia staged a small-scale Victory Day event in a tree-lined street in Mariupol, where destruction was wrought on the city of 450,000. 

This year’s parade in Moscow was smaller than recent years and the Kremlin didn’t invite any foreign leaders, many of whom have stayed away since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In 2005, when Russia marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, more than 50 foreign leaders attended, including U.S. President George W. Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Prior to the Moscow event, state TV showed military parades staged in smaller cities around Russia, which marks May 9 as a public holiday.

In April, Russia abandoned efforts to seize Kyiv and oust Zelenskiy, and switched its focus to the southeast of Ukraine. But there too, its offensive has stalled, failing until now to seize all territory claimed by Kremlin-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas or complete a takeover of the southern coast.   

The Russian campaign is very cautious with lots of back and forth as they win and then lose ground, a senior NATO official said. Still, Putin is undeterred and believes he can win, the official said. 

Without declaring mass mobilisation like Ukraine has, Russia will see the balance of forces swing toward Ukraine, said Michael Kofman, an analyst of Russia’s military at the Virginia-based CNA think tank.

“Russia has tried to take on a large conventional war in Europe at peacetime war strength. Much of it is now exhausted in terms of combat effectiveness,” Kofman said in comments aired by the Atlantic Council. “They are desperately short on manpower.”

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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