On Victory Day, Putin defends war on Ukraine as fight against ‘Nazis’

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
A nurse assists a patient at a hospital in Donbas, Ukraine, on Monday. The man was forced to evacuate from his hometown of Lyman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to justify his contentious war against Ukraine during a huge Victory Day parade on Monday, again falsely calling Ukrainians “Nazis” and insisting without evidence that Kyiv was planning to build nuclear weapons.

As Russia celebrated its most emotional holiday commemorating the Nazi defeat in World War II, Putin appeared in Moscow’s Red Square to invoke pride over the Soviet role in that cause and cast the invasion of Ukraine as a comparable effort. “There is no place in the world for executioners, punishers and Nazis,” he said.

Putin’s speech was brief and made no mention of Russian troops’ poor performance and miscalculations. And he did not declare the “special military operation” to be a “war” or announce a general or partial mobilization to rebuild depleted Russian forces, as some had feared.

Instead, Victory Day was observed in a more somber and subdued way in Red Square and across parts of Ukraine.

The governor of Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second-most-populous city, where Ukrainian troops have been pushing back Russian battalions – said there was less shelling Monday than any day since the conflict began 75 days ago. In Kherson, Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive against Russians occupying the area, a Russian news agency reported. Four missiles, believed fired from Russian-occupied Crimea, struck areas near the port city of Odessa. And rescue efforts remained on hold in the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk, one day after an airstrike on a school buried dozens of civilians, including children, under rubble.

In Washington, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that will expedite the process of sending military aid to Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused Putin – who in his speech also claimed without evidence that Kyiv was planning to build nuclear weapons – of “perverting history.” A senior U.S. defense official said intelligence reports indicate that some middle-rank Russian military officers in Ukraine are disobeying their commanders, while others are not acting with the “alacrity” that would be expected.

Russian forces have continued to struggle in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in the face of stiff resistance, said the senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. While the Kremlin has continued to slowly insert additional military units into eastern Ukraine, Russian forces south of the town of Izyum have advanced a “single-digit” number of kilometers, the official said. The Pentagon has seen no sign of Moscow trying to mobilize additional forces inside Russia that are not already focused on Ukraine.

Russia’s retreat from areas around Kyiv more than a month ago, and Kharkiv more recently, has given many Ukrainians reason for hope, even as Russia consolidates control over large parts of the eastern and southern regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson. In Kharkiv on Monday, restaurants were open, though their backdrop was a downtown where most businesses are damaged from more than two months of near-constant shelling.

“This day is even more symbolic for us because we’re expecting our own victory – and not just the victory of our ancestors,” regional governor Oleh Synyehubov said.

In Moscow, Putin arrived at Red Square shortly before 10 a.m. On his black coat he wore a St. George’s ribbon of black and orange – denoting victory over fascism. His silhouette was notably bulked out, raising speculation that he was wearing a flak jacket, and he shook hands with some of the hundreds of elderly World War II veterans who were in the square.

In a 10-minute speech, Putin encouraged the 11,000 service personnel in attendance and described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “preemptive response” to NATO actions, which he described as aggression and fueling false histories of prior wars. He offered no details on any of his claims but railed at the United States and European countries for their roles before and during the war with Ukraine.

Putin said Russia tried to have an honest dialogue on European security, but “the NATO countries did not want to hear us, which means that, in fact, they had completely different plans. And we saw it.” He accused the NATO alliance of preparing a “punitive operation” to invade Russia’s “historical lands,” including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

The parade began with eight goose-stepping soldiers in dress uniform bearing the Russian flag and red Soviet-era victory banner. As triumphal military music rose, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stood in an open-topped convertible and saluted and congratulated military formations, filled with dozens of smiling personnel.

Dozens of parades and other events were held across Russia on Sunday and Monday, all decked out with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the invasion, emblazoned on Russian armored vehicles as they have rumbled across Ukraine. On Monday, Russian children turned out for parades, riding model tanks and airplanes marked with Z. People posed in Z formations for videos and photos.

In Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine, authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk staged ceremonies lighting eternal flames in honor of World War II’s dead and those killed in the current war, but ruled out parades of their own. State television broadcast footage of Russian soldiers handing out Soviet flags with the St. George’s ribbon in villages near Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.

In the ravaged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, separatist leaders, including militant Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, unfurled a 984-foot banner of the St. George’s ribbon. The once-thriving city has been nearly razed during weeks of Russian bomb and artillery attacks. Pro-Russian figures carried the banner amid its ruins.

Near the front lines in the Donetsk region, relative calm prevailed – at least through the morning hours. Few Ukrainian cities sounded their air-raid sirens overnight. In the town of Lyman, where fighting has raged in recent weeks, civilians used the relative quiet to make frantic dashes to the armored evacuation buses organized by the regional government.

“We waited weeks for this,” said 70-year-old Volodymyr Yutin. He was evacuated to a hospital in the Donbas region with his 94-year-old mother, Katerina, her small frame wrapped in a blanket on a stretcher.

But their escape brought them little joy. They had not heard from Yutin’s daughter, Daria, since April 24.

“Her husband’s last text message said that they were in a basement, and they had food,” Yutin said. He turned away for a moment as his eyes filled with tears. “I hope they’re alive.”

As the day wore on, fighting flared again. On the road between Kramatorsk and Lyman, reporters saw thick plumes of smoke, and rescue workers said it was getting harder to enter the town.

Among the casualties were Ukrainians of Russian origin who had stayed put in their homes because they didn’t think Moscow’s forces would harm them.

Lying anguished in a Donbas hospital bed, Ludmila Krivanos, 67, said she had ignored her children’s pleas to flee, telling them she could carry on with her normal life when the shelling died down. On Monday morning, she was thrown across her kitchen by a blast. When she heard her husband, Nikolai, screaming for help, she found that her legs would not move from underneath her.

“I crawled to him and all I could see was blood,” she said. “We are Russians, we speak Russian. We never thought the Russians could do something like that to us.”

Kharkiv is also a mostly Russian-speaking area. In a nearby town, Nikolai Manailo, a 99-year-old World War II veteran, opened a bottle of champagne for Victory Day. A native of Kharkiv, he once fought alongside Russians.

“Who could’ve believed this could happen?” Manailo said quietly. He wished the two countries could just sit down at a table and sort out their differences over booze.

Ukraine was devastated by World War II. Kharkiv was occupied by the Nazis for more than two years. In his Victory Day address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 8 million Ukrainians perished in the war – about 20% of the population at the time.

Zelensky likened Putin to Adolf Hitler, saying the Russian leader was “following Nazi philosophy, copying everything they did.” He predicted Ukraine would prevail in the current conflict.

“Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine,” he said. “And someone will not have even one left.”