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Putin seeks to justify Ukraine war in Victory Day speech

In a speech at Moscow's annual military parade, the Russian leader announced no new escalation despite fears from Kyiv and its allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to justify his war in Ukraine on Monday, blaming the West and linking the conflict to World War II but not announcing any escalation despite fears from Kyiv and its allies.

In a speech at Moscow’s Victory Day parade to celebrate the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, Putin framed the struggling military campaign as a continuation of that historic fight.

Putin told Russian troops, thousands of whom had gathered in Red Square for the annual display of military might, that they were "fighting for the motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II.”

Putin cast his invasion as a forced intervention to ward off aggression from the U.S. and NATO, repeating his false claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis controlled by the West.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech Monday as service members lined up on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow. Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images

But while Putin repeated his familiar accusations against Moscow's rivals, he offered no sign of imminent escalation.

The address was nervously watched by observers in Europe and Washington, who for weeks expressed concerns about what Putin might announce. Ultimately the highly anticipated speech was over in minutes, without any shift toward a broader national mobilization or a declaration of any sort of victory.

Strong Ukrainian resistance and increasing military support from Kyiv's allies, as well as Russian forces' failures, have left Putin with little to show for the war after more than two months.

He made no reference to Mariupol, the crucial southern port city where a last pocket of Ukrainian resistance that is holed up in the ruins of the Azovstal steel plant has defied Russian efforts to seize complete control of the city.

Putin has made few public appearances since he launched the invasion, with each event closely watched for signs of what Russia might be planning next.

While Putin repeatedly mentioned the war, which the Kremlin refers to only as a “special military operation,” he steered clear of any major announcements in the relatively short speech. 

Putin addressed rows of troops standing before him, including those who, he said, had returned from combat in the Donbas, the industrial region in eastern Ukraine that is the focus of the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian troops.

In a rare nod to the scale of the sacrifice, Putin acknowledged Russian losses in Ukraine. 

“The death of every soldier and officer is a tragedy for all of us and irreparable loss for their families,” he said, adding that the state will do everything to help their loved ones, especially their children.

With overcast skies above, Putin also reiterated the toll of World War II on the Russian people and said it was the country’s national duty to keep alive the memory of those who defeated Nazism then.

“May 9, 1945, is forever inscribed in world history as a triumph of our united Soviet people, their unity and spiritual power, an unparalleled feat on the front lines and in the home front,” he said. 

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Military ranks gathered in Moscow's Red Square on Monday as Putin delivered a speech for Victory Day, the annual celebration marking the end of World War II.Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik via AP

Putin led a moment of silence, but not before he had issued a familiar set of grievances.

He accused the West of neglecting Russia’s security demands before the invasion, reiterating Moscow's claim that it was acting to counter a growing threat near its borders from the NATO alliance and saying a clash with what he called Ukraine’s “neo-Nazis,” backed by the West, was inevitable.

“Russia gave a pre-emptive rebuff to aggression,” he said. “It was a forced, timely and only right decision.”

Putin’s speech was preceded by the usual show of pomp and pageantry, with neat rows of soldiers in parade uniforms and a military orchestra performing patriotic songs. The Kremlin said 11,000 people took part in the parade, as well as more than 130 pieces of military equipment. 

The speech was followed by a show of military power, with Russia’s latest tanks, rocket systems and intercontinental ballistic missiles parading through Red Square. A fly-past was canceled because of weather conditions.

No foreign leaders were present as much of the international community seeks to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine through political and financial sanctions.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked his people’s sacrifice in the joint Soviet and Allied struggle against Nazi Germany in an emotional video, walking along an empty street with anti-tank barriers in the capital.

Zelenskyy said Moscow hoped that Ukraine would refuse to celebrate the joint victory on May 9 amid the Russian invasion, but “we will not give anyone a piece of our history,” he said.

"Soon, Ukraine will have two Victory Days, and someone will have none left," he added. "We won then. We will now.”