Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
- Vladimir Putin said the West was waging a “real war” against Russia in his Victory Day speech.
- But Putin’s inflammatory rhetoric was not matched by his military showing, which was pared down.
- Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his address to align Ukraine more closely with Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inflammatory rhetoric during his Victory Day speech contrasted with the drastically pared down military demonstrations that accompanied it, suggesting the Russian leader may currently be a lot more bark than bite.
Victory Day is celebrated on May 9 every year in Russia to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in World War II. It’s typically a momentous occasion, with elaborate military demonstrations, large-scale parades across the country, and a grandiose speech delivered by Putin emphasizing how the Soviet Union liberated Europe in 1945.
But Tuesday’s celebration was unmistakably scaled back.
“It was hard to miss,” Stephen Norris, a professor of Russian history at Miami University in Ohio, told Insider. “There were fewer soldiers, fewer tanks, fewer things in the parade.”
Leading up to Victory Day, officials in several Russian cities canceled their parades. Russia blamed an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin, but experts said it was more likely officials were trying to hide the extent of their military losses. Only a single T-34 tank — an iconic unit used by the USSR in World War II — was part of the parade that rolled through Moscow’s Red Square. There were no aircraft displays or military jets flown. Only 8,000 soldiers participated, the least since 2008, and UK intelligence has said many of them weren’t even combat soldiers.
Despite the disappointing show of military strength, Putin doubled down on his claims that Russia is fighting for its own existence.
Putin said Russia is facing a ‘real war’
Since delivering his first Victory Day speech in 2000, Putin has pushed the idea that celebrating Victory Day is a patriotic duty for all Russians, emphasizing that if necessary Russians still must defend the Motherland like they did in World War II, Norris said.
“What made the speech interesting, if not a little foreboding, was the way Putin cast Victory Day’s meanings in terms of the present-day war on Ukraine,” he said. “This was not mainly a speech focusing on commemoration, it was one focused on a perceived threat to contemporary Russian civilization.”
As he has since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Putin continued to refer to the invasion as a “special military operation.” He also sought to draw a parallel between the Soviet Union fighting the Nazis in World War II to Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine — a comparison he also made at Victory Day last year.
But unlike like last year, Putin on Tuesday said Russia was currently facing a “real war” — one being waged by the West and aimed at destroying Russia itself.
“He invoked ‘Western globalist elites,’ ‘aggressive nationalism,’ and ‘neo-Nazi scum’ as the enemies in this imagined war, one with imaginary fronts of ‘Russophobia’ and the destruction of Soviet war monuments,” Norris said. “Putin again tried to manipulate history, bend the myth of the war to his way of thinking, and therefore to justify his actual, brutal war.”
Norris explained that part of Putin’s strategy has been to embrace a mythic version of World War II that downplays the role other allied nations played in the victory, emphasizing the role of the Soviet Union and paralleling that to today.
“He almost acts as if the world is no different than it was in World War II,” Norris explained. “That it is now your sacred duty to do the same, to defend the motherland, be patriotic, be unified, liberate Europe from Nazism.”
Zelenskyy sought to align Ukraine more closely with Europe
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also delivered an address this week, one day before Putin, to commemorate the end of World War II. Unlike Putin, Zelenskyy sought to embrace the reality of how allied cooperation ultimately contributed to the defeat of Germany.
But like Putin, he used that history to draw a parallel to the present day.
“We will not allow the joint victory of the nations of the anti-Hitler coalition to be appropriated and we will not allow lies as if the victory could have taken place without the participation of any country or nation,” Zelenskyy said. “We destroyed evil together! In the same way as we are now opposing a similar evil together.”
In addition to rejecting Russia’s narrative, the Ukrainian leader also announced another step that would draw his country closer to Europe and further away from the “Soviet-Putin war cult,” Norris said.
Instead of celebrating the end of World War II with Russia on May 9, Zelenskyy said he would submit a proposal to parliament to celebrate it on May 8 — the same day the rest of Europe does.
He also said Ukraine would replace Russia’s Victory Day with a new holiday to be celebrated annually on May 9 — Europe Day.