Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu crossed himself as his open-topped limousine edged onto Moscow’s Red Square at the start of a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of his country’s victory over Nazi Germany.
The sign of nervousness hinted at the greater significance Saturday’s live-televised event has taken on with western powers accusing Russia of arming the uprising in Eastern Ukraine. During the rehearsals a few days ago, one of Russia’s newest Armata tanks stalled and was left marooned in the center of the square until the session ended.
While the celebration allowed President Vladimir Putin to display Russia’s military prowess, it also underlined his isolation from the countries that fought alongside Russia in World War II. Even as Putin thanked the western powers for their part in the war effort, their leaders stayed away in protest at Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
“The Great Victory will remain the heroic peak in the history of our country. But we remember our allies from the anti-Hitler coalition, too,” Putin told a crowd that included soldiers, veterans and the 27 foreign leaders who’d accepted the president’s invitation. “We’re thankful to the people of Great Britain and France, the United States for their contribution to the victory.”
He also thanked the anti-fascist forces in wartime Germany.
Most of the 68 world leaders invited to attend the 70th anniversary of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War declined, including U.S. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande.
All three men back the sanctions that severed Russia from the global financial system after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, helping tip the economy into a recession. Five years ago, on the 65th anniversary, troops from four NATO countries -- the U.S., the U.K., France and Poland -- had marched alongside Russians.
“Everything will be OK,” said Sergei Krupko, a former KGB adviser attending with his 99-year-old father, a veteran who served in Stalingrad. “It was nice to get a present like Crimea, but eastern Ukraine hasn’t been such a nice present.”
Ukrainian leaders held their own commemoration for the first time this year. Red Army veterans were invited to the Parliament in Kiev on Friday and President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday laid flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the capital.
“We will never celebrate this day as the Russians do, using the Victory Day in a cold-blooded way to further their expansionary policies and keep their neighbors under their influence,” Poroshenko said. “The world supports Ukraine in its struggle for independence. One manifestation of this support was the broad international boycott of today’s parade on Red Square.”
Putin used his speech to criticize the absent nations, which he says have been trying to extend their influence in the countries close to Russia’s borders.
“In recent decades we’ve seen the basic principles of international cooperation being increasingly ignored,” he said. “We’ve seen attempts to create a unipolar world and how bloc thinking is expanding. This all undermines the stability of global development.”
The heads of state who did agree to join Putin included Xi Jinping of China, who sat alongside the Russian leader, bikers’ club leader Alexander Zaldostanov and Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov.
Chinese troops paraded with Russians for the first time as well as soldiers from nations including Serbia, Azerbaijan, India and Mongolia. Raul Castro of Cuba and the leaders of India, South Africa, Vietnam and six former Soviet republics were also due to attend.
Opposite the leaders, the walls of the GUM department store were covered with banners of white doves, photos showing jubilant soldiers riding tanks or hugging their loved ones at the end of the war the words Victory, 70 Years. Military snipers dotted the building’s roof.
The first tanks onto the square drew a smattering of applause from the crowd, drowning out the military band and the booming PA system with the clatter of their tracks across the cobbles. The tanks completed their lap without mechanical problems.