Putin defends Ukraine offensive as Russia marks Victory Day
Putin has repeatedly tried to connect fighting in Ukraine to what Russians call Great Patriotic War
MOSCOW (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin on Monday defended Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and blamed Kyiv and the West, as he looked to use grand Victory Day celebrations to mobilise patriotic support for the campaign.
Speaking at the start of the annual military parade in Red Square marking the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, Putin said Russian troops in Ukraine were defending their homeland and portrayed the conflict as a continuation of World War II.
Addressing Russian forces on the front in Ukraine, he said: "You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War."
Putin has repeatedly tried to connect the fighting in Ukraine to what Russians call the Great Patriotic War by describing authorities in Kyiv as neo-Nazis.
He made no major announcements during the speech, despite reports he could use the anniversary to announce an escalation of the conflict or a general mobilisation in Russia.
Instead Putin put forward a defiant defence of what Russia calls its "special military operation", saying Kyiv and its Western allies had been preparing "an invasion of our historical lands" including in the Russian-speaking Donbas region and in Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
- ‘Absolutely unacceptable threat’ -
"An absolutely unacceptable threat to us was being created, directly on our borders," Putin said, pointing to NATO weapons deliveries to Ukraine and the deployment of foreign advisors.
Russia had no choice, Putin said, but to undertake a pre-emptive response, calling it "the only right decision" for a "sovereign, strong and independent country".
He insisted that Russia was not looking to expand the conflict, saying it was important "to do everything so that the horror of a global war does not happen again."
Putin said some of the troops taking part in Monday’s parade had come directly from the front in Ukraine.
He made no mention of how the conflict is dragging on after more than two months, but acknowledged the "irreparable loss" for the families of dead soldiers and promised state support.
Some 11,000 troops gathered to march on Red Square for Monday’s 77th anniversary, along with more than 130 military vehicles. A planned flypast by Russian military aircraft was cancelled due to bad weather.
As he arrived Putin shook hands with veterans on the viewing stands, their chests weighted down with medals.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Ground Forces Commander-in-chief Oleg Salyukov opened the parade, driving across Red Square standing in open-topped cars as soldiers in formation shouted "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!".
- ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches -
Celebrations began Monday in Russia’s Far East, with thousands gathering in the Pacific Coast city of Vladivostok to watch military vehicles roll through the streets and to join the so-called "Immortal Regiment" march.
The marches, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, see people carrying photos of veterans or family members who died World War II.
This year, participants were also encouraged to bring photos of those who died fighting in Ukraine.
Officials in Moscow say up to a million people are expected to take part in the capital this year.
Troops from Russia’s National Guard in blue camouflage were deployed across central Moscow for Monday’s events, wearing patches on their arms emblazoned with the "Z" symbol used to show support for the campaign in Ukraine.
The symbol has become ubiquitous and on Monday was seen plastered on the sides of vehicles taking part in parades and on flags waved by marchers.