Vladimir Putin has told Russian soldiers they are “fighting for the same thing their fathers and grandfathers did” as he used his Victory Day speech to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
As Putin sought to rally his country through the memory of the second world war, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pushed back in his own address from Kyiv. “We will not allow anyone to annex this victory, we will not allow it to be appropriated,” he said.
The dual speeches marked a closely watched anniversary in eastern Europe, where Russia has used claims that it is fighting fascism to justify its bombardment of cities such as Mariupol and Kyiv and to launch the largest military campaign in Ukraine since the 1940s.
Prior to the speech, foreign officials had said Putin could use it to launch a full mobilisation of Russian troops or formally declare war in Ukraine, but there were no large policy announcements.
Instead he suggested Russia was “forced” into the war by Nato and pledged to provide aid for the families of soldiers who had died in what the Kremlin is calling a “special operation”.
Speaking at the 77th annual celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Russian president launched a defence of his war in Ukraine, pivoting from a recognition of Russia’s “greatest generation” to a description of how it was believed Ukraine was being armed by the west for an imminent attack on Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
“Nato countries did not want to listen to us,” Putin said. “They had different plans, and we saw it. They were planning an invasion into our historic lands, including Crimea … Russia gave a preemptive rebuff to aggression, it was a forced, timely and only right decision.”
He also described the war as “sacred”. “The defence of the motherland, when its fate was being decided, has always been sacred,” Putin said, speaking of the second world war. “And now, you are fighting for our people in the Donbas. For the security of our homeland – Russia.”
Russia provided fewer armoured vehicles than in past years during the Red Square parade on Monday and a planned flyover was cancelled, ostensibly due to weather conditions.
Putin did not bring up specific Russian victories in his speech, despite speculation his forces were engaged in a last-ditch effort to secure Mariupol and its Azovstal plant from the remaining Ukrainian defenders by 9 May.
Instead, the Russian president addressed troop losses in the war, saying he had signed a new order that would give educational aid to the children of those killed. The Kremlin has been accused of seeking to cover up losses. After the sinking of the Moskva cruiser in the Black Sea, a number of families went public with claims the Russian military was trying to avoid confirming deaths onboard the ship.
“The death of each of our soldiers and officers is a grief for all of us and an irreparable loss for relatives and friends,” Putin said. “The state, regions, enterprises, public organisations will do everything to take care of such families and help them. We will provide special support to the children of the dead and wounded comrades. The presidential decree on this was signed today.”
The muted speech came in stark contrast to that delivered by Zelenskiy, who delivered a recorded address to a piano accompaniment as he walked through central Kyiv past anti-tank barricades.
“This is not a war of two armies,” he said. “This is a war of two world views. A war waged by barbarians … who believe that their missiles can destroy our philosophy.”
In the speech, Zelenskiy took aim at Russian claims Ukraine had sought to block 9 May celebrations, a focus of Russian state media in advance of the holiday.
“Our enemy dreamed that we would refuse to celebrate 9 May and the victory over Nazism,” said Zelenskiy. “So that the word ‘denazification’ will have a chance [to succeed] … On the day of victory over Nazism we are fighting for a new victory. The road to it is difficult but we have no doubt that we will win.
“And very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And some will not even have one left.”
On the ground, meanwhile, intense fighting raged in Ukraine’s east, the vital Black Sea port of Odesa in the south came under bombardment again, and Russian forces sought to finish off the Ukrainian defenders making their last stand at a steel plant in Mariupol.
More than 60 people were feared dead over the weekend after Russian bombardment flattened a Ukrainian school being used as a shelter in Bilohorivka, an eastern village, Ukrainian officials said.