Russia fired cruise missiles at Kyiv on Tuesday and paraded troops across Moscow’s Red Square for its annual celebration of victory in World War Two, pared back amid shortages of manpower and arms at the front after a failed winter campaign in Ukraine.
In a fiery 10-minute speech in front of the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin thundered against “Western global elites” and said civilisation was 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.
Underlining how the war has isolated Russia from most of Europe and pushed Ukraine closer to the West, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was visiting Kyiv, where she called Ukraine “the beating heart of today’s European values”.
The holiday commemorating the Soviet victory in World War Two is the most important day in the calendar in Russia under Putin, who casts his invasion of Ukraine as analogous to Russia’s fight against the Nazis. Ukraine, which suffered proportionally greater losses than Russia in World War Two, calls that an abuse of shared history to justify aggression.
The parade was full of traditional pomp but unmistakably scaled down from previous years. In place of phalanxes of modern battle tanks, a single World War Two-vintage T-34 rolled across Red Square. The usual fighter jet flyover was cancelled.
Putin’s message was also undermined by a new profanity-laced tirade from the boss of Russia’s Wagner private army directed at Moscow’s generals for failing to give his forces enough weapons.
“A combat order came yesterday which clearly stated that if we leave our positions (in Bakhmut), it will be regarded as treason against the motherland,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message. “(But) if there is no ammunition, then we will leave our positions and be the ones asking who is really betraying the Motherland.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Moscow had failed to capture Bakhmut despite a self-imposed deadline to give Putin a battlefield trophy in time for the holiday. Moscow regards capturing Bakhmut as a stepping stone towards taking other cities in Ukraine’s industrial east.
Ukraine said its air defences had shot down 23 of 25 Russian cruise missiles fired chiefly at the capital Kyiv overnight, and there were no reported casualties.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had “launched a concentrated strike using high-precision, long-range sea and air-based weapons aimed against enemy barracks and ammunition depots”.
After a weeks-long hiatus, Russia in late April resumed its tactic of long-range missile strikes against Ukraine and has launched a flurry of attacks in recent days.
The day provided Zelenskiy an opportunity to demonstrate Ukraine’s clear break from Moscow by hosting von der Leyen.
“Our efforts for a united Europe, for security and peace, need to be as strong as Russia’s desire to destroy our security, our freedom, our Europe,” Zelenskiy said at their joint press conference in Kyiv.
Russia’s increasing diplomatic isolation has drawn Moscow closer to China, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday that Beijing would maintain lines of communication with all parties to the war in Ukraine in seeking a ceasefire.
“As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and responsible major country, China will neither watch the fire from the other bank nor add fuel to the fire,” Qin told reporters alongside German counterpart Annalena Baerbock during a visit to Berlin.
European nations have criticised China for declining to describe Russia’s sending troops into Ukraine as an invasion or call for a Russian withdrawal.
Putin struck a rousing note in his Victory Day speech, saying all of Russia was praying for its heroes at the front and concluding 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 Red Square followed by armoured vehicles and nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But the Moscow parade was much shorter than usual. Security concerns following attacks including drones that exploded over the Kremlin citadel last week meant parades in some other cities were scaled back or called off. Traditional “Immortal Regiment” processions, in which people carry portraits of relatives who fought against the Nazis, were cancelled.
In Kyiv there were no reported casualties from Russia’s latest volley of air strikes on the capital. Debris fell on a house in the Holosiivskyi district in the southwest of Kyiv but caused little damage, Mayor Vitalii Klitschko said. Debris lay in a road in Kyiv’s central Shevchenkivskyi district.
“As at the front, the plans of the aggressor failed,” said Sergei Popko, head of the Kyiv city military administration.
Russia has stepped up its attacks in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, after Moscow’s winter campaign captured little territory despite the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.
Russia marks the Nazi surrender of May 8, 1945 on the following day, because it took effect when it was already after midnight in Moscow. Ukraine symbolised its break from Moscow on Monday by announcing it was shifting its observance to May 8.
Instead, Kyiv proclaimed May 9 as Europe Day, a date observed by the EU to commemorate the post-war integration movement that led to the founding of the European Union.
“Kyiv, as the capital of Ukraine, is the beating heart of today’s European values,” von der Leyen said at her news conference with Zelenskiy. “Courageously, Ukraine is fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today.”