Russia holds scaled-back Victory Day celebrations under shadow of Ukraine war

Authorities in Crimea have all but canceled Victory Day events “due to security considerations,” according to state media, after a series of apparent Ukrainian drone attacks on military bases and fuel depots in the annexed peninsula that Kyiv is determined to seize back. 

“It is better to take precautions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, adding that “one way or another, citizens will celebrate this holiday.” 

But the war is increasingly being brought home to a population that the Kremlin has worked to insulate from its realities.

“That’s a country clearly on edge,” Michael A. Horowitz, head of intelligence at the Le Beck consultancy, told NBC News.. “When President Putin steps on the podium, everyone will have in mind the image of the drones striking the Kremlin.” 

The pomp and pageantry will still be on show in Moscow though, where soldiers are traditionally joined by tanks and missiles for the parade through Red Square. 

Victory Day marks the 78th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Russian soldiers march toward Red Square to attend a Victory Day military parade in Moscow on Tuesday.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Since the Soviet era, Victory Day has held tremendous sentimental value for Russians, honoring the sacrifice of 27 million people in the fight against Nazi Germany. 

But in the decades of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has weaponized that memory, using it to demonstrate its military might and send a strong message to its adversaries, rather than focus solely on remembrance. 

Putin often evokes the Soviet victory to stoke patriotism and justify his invasion of Ukraine, which he baselessly claims is run by a Nazi government supported by the West in its attempt to annihilate Russia. 

The black-and-brown ribbon of Saint George, adopted by Russia as a symbol of remembrance nearly 20 years ago, has been used and worn by Russian forces and officials operating in Ukraine.   

“Victory Day is central to Putin’s narrative,” Horowitz said. “In the Russian president’s mind, Russia is still engaged in a long battle against ‘Nazism’ that stretches from 1941 (comfortably skipping Russia’s own arrangement with Nazi Germany beforehand), up until today.”

It is a narrative Putin will likely repeat in a bid to rally society behind his “special military operation,” but this is also the second Victory Day that Russia marks without any major victories on the battlefield in Ukraine.

May 8, 202301:03

Russian forces have intensified their assault on Ukrainian defenses in the small eastern city of Bakhmut. 

It was expected that Russia would want to claim the symbolic victory in time for Victory Day, but fierce opposition and Moscow’s own military shortcomings mean the brutal fight has only added to a sense of frailty that will be hard to avoid amid Tuesday’s celebrations. 

“Putin will have nothing to say,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter who has fled the country, wrote on Telegram ahead of the parade. “There is no victory in sight, and without a victory — what kind of Victory Day is that?”

Ukraine Russia war in Bakhmut
Ukrainian defenders have held firm in Bakhmut, depriving the Kremlin of a symbolic victory to show for its grueling winter offensive.Libkos / AP

Underscoring this, Ukraine took another symbolic step to distance itself from the Kremlin.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday he had signed a decree to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8, in line with his Western allies. May 9, Zelenskyy said, will be an occasion to mark what he called “Europe Day,” which the countries of the European Union mark as a day of peace and unity on the continent. 

The move was swiftly decried in Russia. 

“By canceling Victory Day on May 9, he betrayed his ancestors once and for all,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, while the Moscow-appointed leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, called it “a vile but expected” decision by Kyiv.

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