Putin brushes off Western snub at huge WWII victory parade
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday presided over a huge military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, brushing off a snub by Western leaders over Ukraine.
In what is seen as punishment for the Kremlin's meddling in Ukraine, Western countries led by Russia's World War II allies are boycotting the May 9 festivities, leaving Putin to mark the day in the company of the leaders of China, Cuba and other Moscow-friendly figures.
Addressing thousands of foreign guests and veterans, Putin chose to ignore the boycott, thanking Britain, France and the US for their "contribution" to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
"Our fathers and grandfathers went through unbearable suffering, deprivation and losses," Putin said, feting the country's veterans and the "grandeur of Victory over Nazism".
"We are grateful to the people of Great Britain, France and the United States for their contribution to victory," he added, also thanking those who fought against the Nazis in other countries including Germany.
In an apparent dig at the United States, Putin criticised attempts to establish a "unipolar" world order and stressed the need to develop a "system of equal security for all states", but he conspicuously shunned more aggressive rhetoric and made no mention of the Ukraine crisis.
More than 16,000 troops including Chinese honour guards as well as troops from Mongolia, Serbia and several ex-Soviet states marched past the leaders.
In a finely choreographed parade, troops including soldiers sporting Soviet-era uniforms and rifles and a cavalry regiment marched across Red Square's famed cobbles as Putin, seated next to China's Xi Jinping, looked on.
Cutting-edge military equipment including the next-generation Armata T-14 tank and nuclear missile systems rumbled through the square along with the famed war-era T-34 tank, in one of the biggest Victory Day celebrations in decades.
This year the parade also saw over a hundred military aircraft -- including long-range nuclear bombers -- swoop over Moscow in a spectacular fly-by.
The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million soldiers and civilians in WWII -- more than any other country -- and the Red Army's triumph remains an enormous source of national pride.
Victory Day unites Russians from all walks of life irrespective of political sympathies and huge crowds were expected to flood into central Moscow.
But the Kremlin parade was overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, with the West slapping sanctions on Moscow over Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
United States President Barack Obama has snubbed the festivities, as have the leaders of Russia's other key WWII allies Britain and France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel ducked out of attending the parade but will fly to Moscow on Sunday to lay a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Soldier and meet Putin.
Besides China's Xi, other high-profile guests at the parade were United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and India's President Pranab Mukherjee.
Also in attendance were Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, Raul Castro of Cuba, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
Russia said it had not invited Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to attend the parade. The leader of the war-torn ex-Soviet republic for his part had branded Russia's show of military might a "parade of cynicism."
-'Eternal glory to defenders'-
On Saturday morning, many Muscovites sported Soviet army caps and black-and-orange striped ribbons that have become a symbol of patriotism in recent years.
Dressed in a WWII-era uniform one man celebrating in central Moscow, Vyacheslav Ostrovsky, took a picture of his daughter in front of an armoured vehicle draped in a large red flag.
"It makes me dizzy just to think about all the blood that we spilt to raise our flag over the Reichstag," he told AFP. "Eternal glory to the defenders of the motherland!"
Over 70 percent of Russians say a close family member was killed or went missing during the war, making Victory Day an emotional symbol of unity for the nation.
Later in the day around 200,000 people were expected to march through Red Square with portraits of relatives who fought in the war, in a Kremlin-backed campaign dubbed the "Immortal Regiment".
In recent years, victory in what Russians see as a 1941-1945 conflict -- known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War-- has been raised to cult status and critics accuse Putin of seeking to co-opt the country's history to boost his personal power.
The Kremlin has also used WWII narratives to rally support for its current political agenda, for example painting the Ukrainian government as Nazi sympathisers.
© 2015 AFP