For Russian President Vladimir Putin, this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square was a chance to continue his war on history. He succeeded only in underscoring his geopolitical isolation.
In a speech before the assembled troops, Putin drew a direct line between his invasion of Ukraine and the sacrifices of World War II. Flanked by surviving veterans of what Russia still calls the Great Patriotic War, the Russian president cast himself as savior and defender of an embattled Russia targeted by the “globalist elites” of the West.
“Today, civilization again is at a breaking point,” Putin said. “Again, a true war has been unleashed against our motherland.”
While Russia sees “no unfriendly nations in the West or in the East,” Putin suggested darker forces are conspiring against Moscow.
“Western globalist elites still talk about their exceptionalism, pitting people against each other and splitting society, provoking bloody conflicts and coups, sowing hatred, Russophobia, [and] aggressive nationalism,” he said. “The Ukrainian nation has become hostage to a coup which led to a criminal regime led by its Western masters. It has become a pawn to their cruel and selfish plans.”
It’s worth unpacking this for a moment. It’s Putin’s longstanding view that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation — Ukrainians and Russians, in his view, are “one people” and the Ukrainian state is an artificial construct. In his conspiratorial view of the world, states like Ukraine are merely vassals, and Washington calls the shots. And if a shadowy global cabal is pulling the strings in Kyiv, that belief justifies what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Let’s remember that it was a genuine popular revolt — not, say, the CIA or George Soros — that brought people onto Kyiv’s Maidan Square to support Ukraine’s aspirations for joining the European Union, leading to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in 2014. And that Russian-speaking Ukrainians — and even some Russian nationals — are also fighting and dying on the side of Ukraine.
But Putin is immune from fact-checking exercises here. Collective remembrance of World War II is the closest thing Russia has to a state religion, and May 9 — when Russians commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 — marks the holiest of days. For a domestic audience, the Victory Day parade provides a visual parallel between the veterans of the war that ended 78 years ago and the participants of Russia’s war on Ukraine today.
According to state media, over 500 participants of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine took part in the parade on Red Square Tuesday. And in his speech, Putin cast them as the heirs of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Not surprisingly, Ukrainians are pushing back against such historical gaslighting.
In video remarks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he had submitted a bill to the Verkhovna Rada — Ukraine’s parliament to change official victory day celebrations from May 9 to May 8, and compared Russia’s aggression to that of Hitler’s Germany.
“It is on May 8 that most nations of the world remember the greatness of the victory over the Nazis,” Zelensky said. “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.”
Zelensky also played host to an important visitor in Kyiv on the same day as Putin’s Victory Day parade: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who arrived bearing promises of continued support from Europe for Ukraine.
“Ukraine is on the front line of the defense of everything we Europeans cherish: our liberty, our democracy, our freedom of thought and speech,” von der Leyen said. “Courageously Ukraine is fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today. In Russia, Putin and his regime have destroyed these values. And now they are attempting to destroy them here in Ukraine because they are afraid of the success you represent and the example you show, and they are afraid of your path to the European Union.”
And in his joint press conference with von der Leyen, Zelensky was able to rain a little on Putin’s Victory Day parade, noting Russia’s costly and incremental progress on the battlefield.
“They [the Russians] were not able to capture Bakhmut,” he said, referring to the embattled and extensively damaged eastern Ukrainian city. “This was the last important military operation that they wanted to complete by the ninth of May. And unfortunately, the city does not exist anymore. Everything is fully destroyed. … So, they need some information to present it as a victory they need to conquer something — some city — [but] they have not managed to do that.”
The annual Victory Day celebrations in Russia are supposed to be grand public spectacle married with an advertisement for state power. This year’s parade showcased some of Russia’s military might — featuring its S-400 air defense system and Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, part of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal — but a massive procession of modern tanks, the pride of Russia’s army, was conspicuously absent.
And von der Leyen’s visit to Kyiv highlighted Putin’s isolation from Europe and the West. Among the most high-profile visitors featured at Putin’s Victory Day celebrations were an EU-sanctioned president (Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus), a Central Asian strongman (Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan) and the dynastic leader of a petro-state (Serdar Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan).
On the battlefields of Ukraine, the setbacks being dealt to Russian forces in the meat grinder of Bakhmut could not be a sharper contrast to the pomp and circumstance on Red Square.
That fact was brought home by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner, who railed on social media against Russia’s military leadership.
“Today they [Ukrainians] are tearing up the flanks in the Artemovsk [the Russian name for Bakhmut] direction, regrouping at Zaporizhzhia. And a counteroffensive is about to begin,” he said on social media Tuesday. “They absolutely clearly say that the counteroffensive will be on the ground, not on TV.”
Victory Day, Prigozhin added, belonged to a past generation.
“Victory Day is the victory of our grandfathers,” he said. “We haven’t earned that victory one millimeter.”