No event in world history is as important to Russia’s self-identity as the country’s role in World War II, which is celebrated every May 9th, on what is known as ‘Victory Day.’
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over the elaborate festivities – including an ostentatious military parade – as his country waged an unprovoked war in Ukraine that has targeted civilians and destroyed schools, hospitals, and senior centers.
“You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II,” Putin said in Moscow’s Red Square. He also offered an explanation for ordering the invasion, laying the blame on Ukraine’s cozy relationship with the West.
“The danger was growing day by day, so Russia gave a pre-emptive response to the aggression. It was a forced, timely and only correct decision, a decision made by the sovereign, strong and independent country,” Putin said. “We saw how the military infrastructure was being developed, how hundreds of foreign advisers began to work, regular deliveries of the most modern weapons from [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries were occurring.”
Putin framed the current battle in the Donbas as a fight for land that has historically belonged to Russia, an assertion that ignored thousands of years of Ukrainian history.
Putin also repeated one of his most ludicrous talking points. The New York Times reports:
[Putin’s speech] was, as expected, a call to battle using rhetoric slandering Ukraine’s defenders as “Nazis” while evoking Russia’s victorious World War II past — perhaps the most unifying element of the country’s diverse identity. And in a rare acknowledgment of the Ukraine war’s toll, Mr. Putin said the death of every soldier was a “grief for all of us” and promised that the government would do “everything to care for” the families of the dead; he said he had signed a decree on Monday to give “special support to the children of dead and wounded comrades.”
But the speech was also conspicuous for what it did not include.
Mr. Putin did not try to frame any part of the Ukraine war as a “victory,” offering no signal of an imminent end to the conflict. His army’s efforts have fallen well short of expectations: They have been vanquished around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital; pushed back in the northeast; and are making only sporadic gains in the Donbas, the eastern region Russia now says it is focused on.
The Associated Press adds:
Critics said the speech skirted some uncomfortable realities that Putin is facing: With the campaign in Ukraine faltering, he has not asked Russians to accept sacrifices necessary to weather a squeeze of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. He also left unanswered the looming question of whether Russia will mobilize more forces in the face of significant losses.
“Without concrete steps to build a new force, Russia can’t fight a long war, and the clock starts ticking on the failure of their army in Ukraine,” tweeted Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews.
The AP continues:
As Putin laid a wreath in Moscow, air raid sirens echoed again in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared in his own Victory Day address that his country would eventually defeat the Russians.
“Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine,” he said in a video released to mark the holiday. “We have never fought against anyone. We always fight for ourselves. … We are fighting for freedom, for our children, and therefore we will win.”