President Vladimir Putin on Monday defended Russia’s war in Ukraine as necessary to protect the “Motherland” as Moscow displayed its military might in a grand parade commemorating the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Fierce battles raged in eastern Ukraine as Putin delivered his Victory Day speech against a backdrop of rumbling intercontinental ballistic missiles in Moscow’s iconic Red Square.
But Putin sought to channel Russian pride into what he described as a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, which is run by an elected Jewish president.
“They are fighting for the Homeland, for their future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II,” he said.
“No one could have imagined that 77 years later, the fascist forces, the Nazi forces would come back to life, kill civilians, slaughter Russians to pieces,” Anastasia Rybina, one of the participants, told AFP.
Western powers were not impressed by Putin’s words. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace accused Putin of “mirroring fascism”, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Russian leader was “in denial” and the State Department spokesman for USA Ned Price called his speech “patently absurd” and an “insult” to history.
In the critical port of Odessa, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, paid a surprise visit of support and was forced to take refuge during a strike.
The port city was hit on Monday night by a series of powerful missiles that destroyed five buildings, set a shopping center on fire and injured two people, emergency services said.
The governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on Monday that there were “very serious battles” around Bilogorivka and Rubizhne.
Pro-Russian separatists celebrated Victory Day in the devastated southern Ukrainian port of Mariupol, where exhausted Ukrainian forces defend their final stronghold at the Azovstal steel mill.
Full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and Ukraine’s eastern regions run by pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky invoked the ghosts of World War II to rebuke Russia for taking sole credit for winning.
In kyiv, however, commemoration day was largely avoided as life slowly returned to normal, weeks after fierce fighting broke out in the suburbs.
US President Joe Biden signed a Lend-Lease Act, inspired by World War II efforts to fight Nazi Germany, that removes bureaucratic hurdles to expedite arms shipments to Ukraine.
Zelensky hailed the move as a “historic step”, writing on Twitter: “I am convinced that we will win together again. And we will defend democracy in Ukraine. And in Europe. Like 77 years ago.”
In another step forward to pressure Russia, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she made “progress” on a proposed Russian oil embargo during talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
But French President Emmanuel Macron poured cold water on Ukraine’s repeated desire to join the European Union quickly, saying it would take “decades”.
A ray of hope comes from the prisoner exchanges.
“After we were put on the waiting bus, the driver said: ‘Guys, you can breathe. You are home now,'” Stryzhko told AFP from his hospital bed in Zaporizhzhia.