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Russia, Neighbors Mark Anniversary Of World War II Victory

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used a speech at a military parade commemorating the Allied victory over Nazi Germany to press Western countries to fall in line with Moscow's approach to combating international terrorism, saying it was disunity that enabled Adolf Hitler's forces to rampage across Europe and threaten the planet.

Addressing the parade on Red Square on May 9, which Russia celebrates with great fanfare as Victory Day, Putin said that the Soviet Union deserved most of the credit for the Nazi defeat in 1945 and that insecurity in the world today required Russia to strengthen its military.

The "monstrous tragedy" of World War II was not prevented "first of all because the criminal ideology of racial superiority was allowed to exist, because of the disunity of the world's leading countries," Putin said in the speech, televised live on state TV.

Nazi Germany "made its most powerful strikes on the Soviet Union...but there was not, there is not, and there will never be a power that could subdue our people."

"We will never forget that it was precisely our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who prevailed to bring freedom to Europe and long-awaited peace on the planet," he said, making little or no mention of the contributions made by the United States, Britain, and other Western Allies to the victory over Germany and the other Axis powers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the parade.

"Life requires our armed forces to be strengthened even more to be able to stand against terrorism, extremism, and neo-Nazism," Putin said. "The Russian Federation's armed forces are able to stand against any challenge -- but to fight terrorism, the consolidation of the entire international community is needed."

Fraught U.S.-Russian Relations

Putin -- who has been in power as prime minister or president since 1999 and is widely expected to seek and secure a new six-year term in a March 2018 election -- has frequently accused the United States and other Western countries of applying double standards in their efforts to combat terrorism, and even in some cases of conniving with militants with the aim of weakening Russia. The United States and other governments strongly reject these allegations.

This year's Victory Day celebrations come amid U.S. accusations that Russia has been arming Taliban militants in Afghanistan and persistent tension between Moscow and the West over Syria, where Russia has backed President Bashar al-Assad throughout a devastating 6-year-old war and conducted a military campaign that has mainly targeted Assad's foes and is separate from the U.S. strikes on Islamic State (IS) militants.

INFOGRAPHIC: Victory Day By The Numbers

Western leaders have attended Victory Day parades in the past, particularly on round anniversaries. But they are loath to offer any tacit support by watching a show of a military might by a country the United States and European Union accuse of seeking to tear up the postwar order and carve new borders in Europe by seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and by inciting and then backing separatists whose war against Kyiv has killed more than 9,900 people in eastern Ukraine.

A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile system at the military parade in Moscow.
A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile system at the military parade in Moscow.

The only foreign leader visible in the crowd of veterans and officials near Putin on a grandstand watching the parade was Moldova's pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, who advocates stronger ties with Moscow. Dodon stood next to Putin, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose political position has been weakened by corruption allegations and gaffes, stood at a distance and was not visible in most footage of the event.

The Red Square parade, with troops marching and heavy weaponry rolling across the cobblestoned space outside the Kremlin, was the centerpiece of massive state-organized celebrations nationwide. Warplanes did not fly overhead in Moscow, however, because of concerns about the wet weather that persisted despite costly cloud-seeding efforts.

An estimated 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens were killed in World War II and the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 is viewed with immense pride by millions in Russia, where few families were left untouched by the war.

Putin traditionally uses his Victory Day parade address to call for unity within Russia and for closer international cooperation against terrorism, often implicitly or overtly criticizing the West.

Kremlin critics say Putin's government uses the celebrations to stoke patriotism and send geopolitical signals but pays little attention to the needs of aging veterans.

Many also say the Russian authorities gloss over historical facts that undermine their narrative of a glorious war of liberation, such as the Hitler-Stalin pact that enabled Germany and the Soviet Union to divide Poland and the Baltics, the killings of Soviet soldiers by secret police, and atrocities committed during the advance into Germany.

'Immortal Regiment'

Military parades were held in dozens of cities across Russia and the government organized separate processions called the Immortal Regiment, in which people march bearing photographs of loved ones who died in the war or survived it.

Many Russians accuse the Kremlin of hijacking the Immortal Regiment marches, which emerged several years ago as a grassroots movement honoring the sacrifices made by previous generations in the war, and turning them into a state-sanctioned event designed to instill patriotism.

Putin marched near the front of the large Immortal Regiment column on Moscow's main street, holding a portrait of his father, who was wounded in the war. Irina Volk, a spokeswoman for Russia's Interior Ministry, was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying that a record 850,000 people participated in the Immortal Regiment column in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds the portrait of his father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds the portrait of his father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march in Moscow.

Victory Day celebrations were held in several other former Soviet republics. But with feelings of unity with Moscow inspired by the memory of the war fading -- and many of Russia's neighbors wary of its intentions following its interference in Ukraine -- and the way the war's end is marked differs from country to country.

Ukraine now officially marks the end of the war in Europe on May 8, which is called the Day of Memory and Reconciliation, and there was no military parade in Kyiv on May 9 but low-key Victory Day commemorations were held.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of foisting Immortal Regiment marches on other former Soviet republics in an effort to strengthen its influence.

Speaking to newly drafted soldiers who took the military oath at a World War II museum in Kyiv, Poroshenko called the Immortal Regiment "fine-spun political speculation" and added, "It would be good if those Ukrainians who think that its organizers are sincere could understand that as well."

"In fact, it was created in Moscow not to truly honor the memory of [those who fought]," he said, but to "assist Russia's expansion to neighboring countries."

Altercations broke out in Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Odesa, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhya when activists staged Immortal Regiment marches. Several people were detained in Kyiv after they tried to unfurl Soviet flags, whose public display is banned in Ukraine, or black-and-orange St. George ribbon banners, which are seen by many Ukrainians as a symbol of Russian aggression.

Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Serhiy Yarovyy told reporters that 45 people were detained across the country, including 25 in Kyiv, and two police officers -- one in Kyiv and one in Zaporizhzhya -- were injured.

Victory Day parades were also held in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Separatists leaders held portraits of two prominent separatist commanders -- Mikhail Tolstykh, whose nom de guerre was Givi, and Arseny Pavlov, known as Motorola -- at the front of an Immortal Regiment procession in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Pavlov had boasted about having killed 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war, while video footage from 2015 shows Tolstykh verbally and physically abusing captured Ukrainian servicemen. Both of the separatist commanders were killed over the past year in apparent assassinations.

In Tajikistan, about 300 people held an Immortal Regiment march in the capital, Dushanbe, defying authorities who canceled the procession citing security concerns. Marches were held in cities across Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where there was no government opposition.

In Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent, where authorities denied permission for an Immortal Regiment march, backers of the movement planned to lay flowers at a war memorial in the city center instead.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian marked Victory Day not in Armenia but in Azerbaijan's breakaway, mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the regional capital, Stepanakert, Sarkisian attended a military parade devoted to Victory Day, which coincides with the day Armenian-backed forces took control of the city of Shusha in 1992 during a war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh that killed more than 30,000 people.

In Georgia, Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II led a prayer service at a memorial honoring those who died in World War II.

With reporting by RFE's Ukrainian, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Georgian, and Russian services
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