President Vladimir Putin on Monday tried to defend Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in his annual “Victory Day” speech, urging his forces on to victory while evoking Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Speaking ahead of a massive parade of troops, tanks and military hardware in Moscow, Putin claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been necessary because the West was “preparing for the invasion of our land, including Crimea,” according to comments translated by Reuters.
It’s unclear whether Putin was referring to Russia, or territory that Moscow considers to be Russian. This includes Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the eastern Donbas region, where Donetsk and Luhansk — two pro-Russian self-proclaimed “republics” — are located.
Putin provided no evidence for his claims, but used the speech to lambast NATO and Ukraine’s allies, and justify what Russia claims is a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Prior to the invasion, Russia had amassed almost 200,000 troops along its border with Ukraine — insisting all the while that it had no intention of invading. There was little evidence of military aggression from Ukraine toward Russia, but Moscow’s claims to the contrary were seen by many as a pretext for justifying its attack.
The remarks come as Russia commemorates one of the most important events on its national calendar — Victory Day — marking the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Evoking that victory in his speech Monday, Putin urged the Russian army toward victory in Ukraine, saying there was a duty to remember those who defeated Nazism.
“Defending the Motherland when its fate is being decided has always been sacred,” he said. “Today you are fighting for our people in Donbas, for the security of Russia, our homeland.”
Putin referred to the Donbas numerous times throughout the speech, appearing to double down on Russia’s new strategy of focusing on the “liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The region has been home to some of the most intense fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, including a number of alleged war crimes, such as the shelling of a theater in Mariupol, where civilians were sheltering, killing hundreds of people.
The southern port city of Mariupol is particularly important to Putin as it would enable a land bridge between Russia and Crimea (annexed in 2014) to be created, via the Donbas region.
Fighting in the east appears to be ramping up, and this weekend Russia bombed a village school in eastern Ukraine killing about 60 people, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday during an address to the G-7 leaders of the world’s most industrial nations.
Russia has not commented on the latest attack. Previously, it has denied targeting civilian infrastructure despite much evidence to the contrary.
Russia’s invasion has prompted international condemnation and swathes of wide-ranging economic sanctions on the country’s key sectors, companies and individuals connected to the Kremlin.
Putin has appeared unrepentant, however, vowing repeatedly to purge Ukraine of what he call its “Nazi” nationalist leadership — a baseless claim, widely discredited, that is seen as Putin’s way of justifying the invasion to the domestic audience.
G-7 leaders vowed on Sunday to further Russia’s economic isolation and decried the invasion, saying in a statement that Putin’s actions “bring shame on Russia and the historic sacrifices of its people,” referring to the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.
Zelenskyy, who is himself Jewish, released a video address Sunday which was filmed in front of semi-destroyed Ukrainian apartment blocks following Russian shelling. In it, the Ukrainian president said that evil had returned, but insisted his country would not lose the war. “Russia will lose, because evil always loses,” he said.