Vladimir Putin has claimed Russia was forced to "strike back pre-emptively" against Ukraine, adding that the Kremlin's troops were "fighting on their own land" in the conflict, just as Soviet forces did in the second World War.
In his speech at the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, the Russian president sought to justify his invasion by claiming Russia had to defend itself against an imminent attack. He also hinted that he would lay claim to more Ukrainian territory, including lands currently occupied by the Kremlin’s forces.
Mr Putin offered no evidence for his claims. Ukraine and its allies have said such accusations had no basis in reality and blamed the war on what Kyiv labelled Russia’s “sick imperial ambitions”.
The Russian president gave no indication that his country would seek to mobilise its forces or declare a wider war against the west, which western officials and military analysts had suggested he would be forced to do as his invasion of Ukraine continues to sputter.
But Mr Putin’s explicit parallels between the Soviet victory and the current campaign in Ukraine made his commitment to defeating Kyiv clear.
He has sought to use Russia’s traumatic memory of that war, in which 24 million Soviet citizens died, to mobilise support for the current invasion.
“The Donbas militia and the Russian army are fighting on their own land, which the heroes of the Great Patriotic War defended to the death,” said Mr Putin, referring to Kremlin-backed forces in the eastern border region of Ukraine.
By contrast, in a speech shortly before Mr Putin's address, Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia's leadership of repeating the "horrific crimes of Adolf Hitler's regime" by waging a war of atrocities and land grabs.
“This is not a war of two armies,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a video address. “This is a war of two world views, a war waged by barbarians.”
The Ukrainian president emphasised that millions of Ukrainians perished and fought against Nazi Germany during the second World War and said Kyiv's determination to resist the Russian invasion would ensure its victory.
“There is no occupier who can take root in our free land,” said Mr Zelenskiy. “There is no invader who can rule over our free people. Sooner or later, we win.”
Mr Putin claimed that some of the troops participating in the Moscow parade had fought in the battle for Donbas and accused Ukraine of having prepared to “invade our historical lands”, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
He added that this had created an “absolutely unacceptable threat for us directly on our borders” that meant a clash with what he called US-backed “neo-Nazis” was inevitable.
“Russia struck back pre-emptively against the aggression. This was a forced, timely and the only correct decision for a sovereign, strong and self-sufficient country,” he said.
Ukrainian officials had suspected that Mr Putin would use the anniversary to wind down the conflict by declaring Russia had won a victory by capturing the key port city of Mariupol in the Donbas or annexing parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in southern Ukraine.
But a series of battlefield setbacks forced Mr Putin to withdraw his armies from central Ukraine after an apparent plan to seize Kyiv in a blitzkrieg and topple the government failed.
A refocused offensive to take the Donbas has also so far not produced a breakthrough as Russia’s forces continue to sustain heavy casualties.
Although the parade included a show of Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, Mr Putin’s message to the west was more restrained than in other recent speeches in which he has made thinly veiled threats of nuclear retaliation against the west for aiding Ukraine.
Mr Putin said the west had “decided to cancel . . . thousand-year values” of patriotism and added that its “moral degradation has become the foundation for cynic falsifications of history of [the] second World War, spreading Russophobia, praising traitors, mocking the memory of their victims and crossing out the bravery of those who achieved and suffered for victory”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022