Russia fired cruise missiles at Kyiv on Tuesday and paraded troops and vintage equipment across Red Square in a curtailed celebration of victory in World War Two, while Kyiv fended off the air strikes and hosted the head of the European Union.
In a fiery 10-minute speech in front of the Kremlin walls, Russian President Vladimir Putin thundered against “Western global elites” and said Russia again faced an existential threat.
“Today, civilisation is again at a decisive turning point. A real war has been unleashed against our homeland,” said the Russian leader, who last year ordered what the West calls an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, destroying cities and killing thousands of civilians.
May 9, the date in Moscow’s time zone of Germany’s May 8 surrender in 1945, is the most important holiday in Russia under Putin, who casts his invasion of Ukraine as analogous to the threat Russia faced from the Nazis in World War Two.
Ukraine, hosting EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said its air defences shot down 23 of 25 Russian cruise missiles fired chiefly at the capital Kyiv overnight, and there were no reported casualties. It was the second night in a row of major Russian air strikes and fifth so far this month.
Putin said the whole country was praying for its “heroes” at the front and concluded with a cheer for “Russia, for our valiant Armed Forces, for victory!”.
After he spoke, a band struck up and cannon fired a salute. Soldiers marched through the square, followed by armoured vehicles and nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in a parade notably smaller in scale than past years.
A flyover of warplanes over Moscow was cancelled, and parades in some other cities were scaled back or called off, amid security concerns – including drones that exploded over the Kremlin citadel itself last week – and shortages of troops and arms at the front.
The traditional “Immortal Regiment” processions, in which people carry portraits of relatives who fought against the Nazis, were cancelled.
State television lauded the arrival of the “legendary T-34 tank” – a World War Two-vintage relic paraded in the place normally taken by modern battle tanks.
In Ukraine there were no reported casualties from Russia’s latest wave of air strikes on the capital.
“Overnight into the ‘sacred’ May 9, (they) launched an attack on the territory of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s air force said.
Sergei Popko, head of the Kyiv city military administration, said the Russians were trying to kill civilians. “As at the front, the plans of the aggressor failed.”
Moscow denies targeting civilians and says its air strikes are aimed at reducing Ukraine’s ability to fight.
Debris fell on a house in the Holosiivskyi district in the southwest of Kyiv but caused little damage, Kyiv Mayor Vitalii Klitschko said. Debris lay in a road in the often-targeted Shevchenkivskyi district of central Kyiv.
Russia has stepped up its attacks this month in anticipation of a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive, after a failed Russian winter campaign captured little territory despite the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.
Kyiv symbolised its break from Moscow this year by shifting its observance of the World War Two Victory to May 8 in line with European allies; on May 9 it celebrated a declaration that led to the founding of the body that became the European Union.
“Good to be back in Kyiv. Where the values we hold dear are defended everyday,” the EU’s von der Leyen tweeted, calling it a “such a fitting place to celebrate the day of Europe”.
In Moscow, Putin welcomed the leaders of half a dozen other former Soviet states at the Kremlin before they took their places on the dais outside and later laid flowers at the eternal flame by the Kremlin walls.
“Putin is parading his soldiers, tanks and missiles today,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told lawmakers in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “We must not be intimidated by such power plays! Let’s remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine – for as long as it takes!”
The Soviet victory over the Nazis is Russia’s defining state story under Putin, who says independent Ukraine now represents a return of the World War Two threat.
Ukraine, which as part of the Soviet Union overrun by the Nazis suffered worse per capita losses than Russia in World War Two, says Moscow’s account of the shared history is distorted to justify today’s Russian aggression.
The parade comes at a crucial juncture in the war, with Kyiv preparing to launch a counteroffensive in coming weeks after keeping its troops on the defensive for the past six months.
Kyiv says Russia tried and failed to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut in time for the holiday to give Putin a trophy for his costly winter campaign.
Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s eastern command, said little had changed over the past 24 hours in the battle for the city: “The enemy has not taken Bakhmut,” he said. “There are no significant changes in positions.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose private army Wagner made up mainly of convicts recruited from prison led Russia’s fighting in Bakhmut for months, has threatened to abandon the city, accusing generals of withholding the ammunition his forces need.
On Tuesday he said the ammunition had still not arrived but he did not want to “spoil” the Victory Day parade and would reveal more details later.