Russia flexes military muscle on Victory Day
(AFP) Fighter jets screamed over Red Square and heavy tanks rumbled over its cobblestones Thursday as Russia flexed its military muscle on the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The first decision to hold Victory Day parades was taken by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin himself after the country lost an estimated 27 million people defending its territory and the Eastern Front.
The tradition has been given extra fanfare by President Vladimir Putin -- an ardent nationalist whose patriotic fervour has helped him win strong backing from the middle class.
The Victory Day parades have expanded during Putin's 13 years in power to include heavy intercontinental missiles and Tu-95 bombers that can easily reach the shores of the United States.
The tradition has been accompanied by a return of pro-Soviet rhetoric and a defence of Moscow's decisive role in the war that Putin alluded to on Thursday.
"We will always remember that it was specifically Russia, the Soviet Union, that undermined the abhorrent, bloody, supercilious plans of the Nazis and kept them from controlling the world," Putin said at the nationally televised ceremony.
"Our soldiers saved freedom and independence by defending their motherland without sparing themselves, liberating Europe and claiming a victory whose grandeur will live on for centuries."
The entire ceremony was also shown live on state television in war-torn Syria -- Russia's most important Middle East ally whose regime relies on support from Moscow to avoid sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad.
The 68th anniversary of what Russia still calls The Great Patriotic War included 11,000 soldiers marching in lockstep to a military band as huge banners reading "May 9" decorated the Kremlin's walls.
About 2,000 veterans proudly wearing chests-full of medals were received by Putin for a special banquet reception in the Kremlin after watching the procession from the stands.
Putin downed the customary 100 grams of vodka with the veterans that soldiers received daily during the war.
"You toppled a vicious foe," Putin told the veterans. "You brought freedom to the people of the entire world."
The Russian leader -- his macho image boosted by periodic televised spins in fighter jets and new tanks -- has unfurled a 23-trillion-ruble ($740 billion) military spending plan over the coming decade that will see the deployment of 400 new ballistic missiles and 600 warplanes.
"We must modernise our defence industry as comprehensively as it was done in the 1930s," Putin said last year in reference to the worst years of Stalin's deadly political purges.
The freedom not to condemn Stalin's atrocities under Putin has given new strains to the cult of personality that dictated Soviet life.
A group of Communist supporters on Wednesday even unveiled a bust of the wartime leader in the Far Eastern city of Yakutsk.
Putin's military plan has put pressure on other sectors of Putin's budget and on outdated Soviet-era military factories that are unable to cope with the sudden surge in demand for a new generation of weaponry.
Putin has expressed repeated frustration at the military churning out products such as tanks and weapons systems that cost more than their Western rivals while often failing in reliability tests.
The Kremlin chief said Thursday that the extra military spending was needed to secure Russia's role as a guarantor of peace across the world.
"We will do all we can to strengthen security on the planet," he said.
Smaller Victory Day celebrations were held on the central squares of cities across Russia as well as at Moscow's Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.