Russian cruise missiles exploded in the air over Kyiv as Vladimir Putin marked the anniversary of victory over the Nazis with another attack on Ukraine.
Speaking at a noticeably scaled-back military parade in Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, the Russian president said the “survival of the Russian people” depended on the war in Ukraine, as he used his Victory Day speech to defend his invasion of the country.
“Today, civilisation is again at a decisive turning point. A real war has been unleashed against us again,” Putin said as he delivered an angry speech in which he drew false parallels between today’s fight with Ukraine’s “criminal regime” and the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
“We are proud of the participants of the special military operation. The future of our people depends on you,” he said, standing on the Red Square podium.
Putin also blamed the west for “destroying traditional values” and propagandising a “system of robbery and violence”.
“The goal of our enemies, and there is nothing new here, is to achieve the disintegration and destruction of our country,” the president said, striking a largely familiar tone and framing the war in Ukraine as a defensive battle unleashed on Russia.
“Here is to our victory!” the Russian president exclaimed before leaving the podium.
Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the end of what they call the “great patriotic war” against Nazi Germany in 1945, has emerged as the centrepiece of Putin’s vision of Russian identity over his 23 years in charge.
Security concerns cast a shadow on this year’s Victory Day celebrations across Russia after two drones attacked the Kremlin last week. More than 20 cities across the country had scrapped their parades, including those several thousands of miles from the frontlines.
The traditional flyover in Moscow and St Petersburg was cancelled on Monday and the parade in the Russian capital was shorter than in previous years.
Observers also noticed that this year’s parade featured significantly less heavy modern equipment than in years past – and only one Soviet-era tank – a clear sign that the war in Ukraine has inflicted a heavy toll on the country’s military.
“As I expected, the Kremlin tried to hide the severe damage to the army but it’s too much to hide,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation thinktank.
More than 500 Russian soldiers who fought in Ukraine were present at the parade, according to state media.
The Russian president did receive a late PR boost on Monday when the heads of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Armenia – three post-Soviet countries that Moscow strives to keep in its orbit – announced they would attend the military parade on Red Square alongside the heads of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
One of Putin’s key allies during the Ukraine war, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, also attended but skipped lunch amid health concerns. Lukashenko appeared tired and had a bandage on his right hand.
All foreign leaders stayed away from the Victory Day parade last year, which took place two months after the start of the invasion.
Putin’s speech came hours after his country launched a fresh barrage of cruise missiles at Ukraine. Ukraine said its air defences shot down 23 of 25 missiles fired chiefly at the capital, Kyiv, and there were no reported casualties.
“Overnight into the ‘sacred’ May 9, [they] launched an attack on the territory of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s air force said on its Telegram messaging app.
Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv city military administration, said the Russians were trying to kill civilians. He added: “As at the front, the plans of the aggressor failed.”
Russia’s latest missile barrage came as both sides appeared to be preparing for a widely expected Ukrainian offensive that Kyiv hopes will help recapture territory lost since the start of the war.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, described Moscow’s shelling as an attempt to demonstrate some military successes as Russia’s winter offensive has come to a stall.
“Russia … needs to sell something to their society,” Zelenskiy said, speaking at a press conference in Kyiv alongside the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who travelled to the city on Tuesday morning.
“They were not able to sell Bakhmut to their society because they were not able to capture Bakhmut,” Zelenskiy said, referring to the besieged eastern Ukrainian city that Moscow has been trying to capture for months.
The head of Russia’s Wagner group militia, Evgeniy Prigozhin, whose troops have been engaged in the bloody fighting for Bakhmut, blamed the country’s defence ministry on Tuesday for the abandonment of positions near the city, in his latest attack against the military top brass.
Von der Leyen said Ukraine was “on the frontline of the defence of everything we Europeans cherish: our liberty, our democracy, our freedom of thought and speech”, describing Kyiv as “the beating heart of today’s European values”.
“Courageously Ukraine is fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today. In Russia, Putin and his regime have destroyed these values,” she said.