President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that the West has unleashed “a real war” against Russia, reprising a familiar refrain at scaled-down Victory Day celebrations that may reflect the toll the Ukraine conflict is taking on his forces.
Putin’s remarks came just hours after Moscow fired its latest barrage of cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, which Russia invaded more than 14 months ago. Ukrainian authorities said air defenses destroyed 23 of 25 missiles launched.
The Russian leader has repeatedly sought to paint his invasion of Ukraine as necessary to defend against a Western threat. Kyiv and its Western allies say they pose no such threat and that Moscow’s war is meant to deter Western influence in a country that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.
“Today civilization is once again at a decisive turning point,” Putin said at the annual commemorations celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. “A real war has been unleashed against our motherland.”
Putin has often used patriotic rhetoric that harkens back to the earlier war in an effort to rally his citizens and forces — and May 9 is one of the most important dates in the Russian political calendar. But this year’s celebrations were markedly smaller, at least partially because of security concerns after several drone attacks have been reported inside Russia.
Some 8,000 troops took part in the parade in Moscow’s Red Square on Tuesday — the lowest number since 2008. Even the procession in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, featured some 13,000 soldiers, and last year, 11,000 troops took part. There was no fly-over of military jets, and the event lasted less than the usual hour.
“This is weak. There are no tanks,” said Yelena Orlova, watching the vehicles rumble down Moscow’s Novy Arbat avenue after leaving Red Square. “We’re upset, but that’s all right; it will be better in the future.”
The Kremlin’s forces deployed in Ukraine are defending a front line stretching more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), presumably thinning the ranks of troops available for such displays.
“This is supposed to be a showpiece for Russian military might. But so much of that military might has already been mauled in Ukraine that Russia has very little to show on its parade in Red Square,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at London’s Chatham House think tank.
As a display of military hardware it was “very underwhelming,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London, noting that the T-34, the iconic World War II tank, was the only tank on display. “Normally they show off all the really modern stuff, and they didn’t have any of those. Nor did they seem to have armored fighting vehicles. … So there was nothing new on display.”
Meanwhile, the traditional Immortal Regiment processions, in which crowds take to the streets holding portraits of relatives who died or served in World War II — a pillar of the holiday — were canceled in multiple cities.
“That seems to be for fear that those people who have lost their relatives in this current war on Ukraine might actually join the processions and show just the scale of the casualties that Russia has suffered in its current war,” Giles said.
Russian media counted 24 cities that also scrapped military parades — another staple of the celebrations — for the first time in years. Regional officials blamed unspecified “security concerns” or vaguely referred to “the current situation” for the restrictions and cancelations. It wasn’t clear whether their decisions were taken in coordination with the Kremlin.
Last week, Russia claimed it foiled an attack by Ukrainian drones on the Kremlin that it called an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Putin. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied involvement.
There was no independent verification of the purported attack, which Russia authorities said occurred overnight but presented no evidence to support it.
On a tribune in Red Square, Putin praised soldiers taking part in the war in Ukraine and urged Russians to stand together.
“Our heroic ancestors proved that there is nothing stronger, more powerful and more reliable than our unity. There is nothing in the world stronger than our love for the motherland,” Putin said.
The guest list was also light amid Putin’s broad diplomatic isolation over the war. Initially, only one foreign leader was expected to attend this year’s parade — Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov. That was one more foreign guest than last year, when no leaders went.
At the last minute on Monday, officials announced that the leaders of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would head to Moscow as well.
As the celebrations unfolded, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner, said his fighters had yet to receive ammunition promised to them by the military — but that they would continue to fight in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut despite earlier threatening to withdraw them.
In a video published on Telegram, Prigozhin claimed that Russian army units had fled their positions in the city due to the “stupidity of their leadership” — a reference to the Defense Ministry — and that it threatened to charge Wagner troops with treason if they, too, pulled out.
Prigozhin’s allegations could not be independently verified, and the Russian military has not commented on them.
The threat of departure marked another flare-up in Prigozhin’s long-running dispute with Russia’s military brass over credit and tactics in the war.
On Tuesday, he contrasted the pomp of the May 9 celebrations, broadcast across Russia, with the reality on the ground.
“Victory Day marks the victory of our grandfathers; we did not deserve a single bit of this victory. The counteroffensive will be on the ground, not on television,” Prigozhin warned, adding that the Russian state is “unable to defend the country.”
Prigozhin has become known for such inflammatory, headline-grabbing statements, particularly at key moments when attention is focused elsewhere — but issuing them on Victory Day was remarkably bold.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian air force said in a Telegram post that eight Kalibr cruise missiles were fired from carriers in the Black Sea toward the east and 17 from strategic aircraft.
The missiles came hours before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s executive branch, arrived in Kyiv.
Von der Leyen urged EU member nations to take measures to prevent countries from helping Russia to circumvent the bloc’s sanctions. The EU has noticed that certain products that have been banned to undermine Russia’s war effort are still getting through, she said.
Von der Leyen did not name the countries.
Ukraine is keen to join the EU, but membership is still a long way off. Ukraine is also hoping to join NATO, after moving close to the Western military alliance during the war.
In the latest help from a NATO member, the U.S. was expected to announce Tuesday that it will provide $1.2 billion more in long-term military aid to Ukraine to further bolster its air defenses.
Later in the day, Zelenskyy used his nightly address to mark Europe Day, having decreed Monday that Ukraine will celebrate Europe Day on May 9, and join the rest of Europe in celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8.
In the address, he drew parallels between “the brutal aggressions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
“It is only a matter of time before the current aggressor loses, like the aggressor who lost 78 years ago, before Russian revanchism is crushed by the bravery of our warriors and the joint power of the free world,” he said.