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At Russia’s Victory Day Parade, Putin Keeps Ukraine in the Distance

The ballistic missiles rolled through Red Square, the fighter jets zipped overhead and rows of foreign dignitaries impassively looked on. Russia’s annual commemoration of the end of World War II presented a traditional ceremony on Thursday cherished by millions of Russians, a reflection of President Vladimir V. Putin’s broader attempts to project normalcy while resigning the population to a prolonged, distant war.

At last year’s Victory Day celebration, as Russia struggled on the battlefield, Mr. Putin said the country was engaged in a “real war” for survival, and accused Western elites of seeking the “disintegration and annihilation of Russia.” On Thursday he merely referred to the war in Ukraine once, using his initial euphemism for the invasion, “special military operation.”

And on Russia’s most important and deeply emotional secular holiday, he dedicated more time to the traditional remarks about the sacrifices of Soviet citizens in World War II than to the bashing of modern adversaries.

Still, he did not ignore those adversaries entirely, reviving familiar criticisms and grievances about what he says are attempts to undermine Russia and accusing the West of “hypocrisy and lies.”

“Revanchism, abuse of history, attempts to excuse modern heirs of the Nazis — these are all parts of the policies used by the Western elites to spark more and more new regional conflicts,” Mr. Putin said in an eight-minute address.

The ceremony itself was slightly more expansive than last year’s bare-bones procedure, a sign of a nation that has recovered from the initial shock of the war and currently holds the advantage on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Nine thousand servicemen marched through the Red Square as snow fell, compared with eight thousand in 2023. There were a few dozen more units of military hardware on display and a few more foreign dignitaries present.

The city center, usually crowded with revelers celebrating the holiday, was mostly blocked off by the security services. The temperature in Moscow was the coldest recorded on this date since 1945, according to the national meteorological service.

Last year, Mr. Putin hosted only the presidents of former Soviet republics, who along with Russia fought against Nazi Germany in World War II. This year, the foreign heads of state included the presidents of Cuba, Laos and Guinea-Bissau, underlining Russia’s persistent clout among developing countries despite Western attempts to isolate Mr. Putin diplomatically.

Mr. Putin’s closest foreign ally, President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, also attended, bringing his dog, a spitz called Umka, with him to the front row of the parade stand.

Most symbolically, this year’s parade once again featured a flyover by fighter jets, which left a trail in the colors of the Russian flag over central Moscow. This was canceled last year amid escalating attacks on the Russian capital by Ukrainian drones.

These attacks have since subsided, as Russia has boosted its air defenses and improved its own drone capabilities. As the parade was coming to an end, drones hit an oil refinery in the Ural Mountains, 750 miles east of Moscow. The local governor claimed that it continued to work normally.

More broadly, over the past year, Russia has stabilized its economy, expanded its military production and organized a steady flow of new recruits, allowing it to retake the initiative on the battlefield after a disastrous first year of full-scale war in Ukraine.

Thursday’s parade was still a far cry from the Victory Day pomp before the invasion, when more than 10,000 Russian soldiers traditionally marched in tightly choreographed columns, and Russia’s latest tanks, airplanes and helicopters streamed across Red Square.

But this year’s slightly expanded parade still appeared to signal that the worst of the upheaval of Russia’s war in Ukraine was over, that the conflict had settled into a brutal, yet predictable pattern.

Mr. Putin, who was sworn in for his fifth term as president on Tuesday, has largely succeeded in outsourcing the fighting to volunteers lured to the front by outsized military salaries and by legal benefits like criminal pardons and expedited Russian passports. This has allowed most Russians to tune out the war and reap the benefits of an economy boosted by military spending.

In his address, he checked off his usual revisionist historical talking points about the rise of neo-Nazism in the West. At one point, he falsely equated Nazi Germany with the whole of Europe, in an apparent attempt to draw parallels with his current standoff with the European Union.

And he appeared to allude to Russia’s nuclear capabilities against the West, echoing the Kremlin’s order earlier this week for its forces to conduct drills on the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.

“Russia will do everything to avoid a global conflict,” Mr. Putin said. “At the same time, we will not allow anyone to threaten us. Our strategic forces are always in combat readiness.”

Following tradition, nuclear-capable missile systems were driven across Red Square as part of the show of military equipment.

The parade draws a self-selecting audience every year. This year, spectators gushed with patriotism and support for the Russian Army, the president, the war and the memory of fallen ancestors.

“I always cry at the parade and I cried this time, too,” said Alyona Britkova, 44, a public relations manage from Moscow. “I cry out of pride for my country, for my army. And for the memory of my grandfather,” who she said was part of the Soviet Army that fought all the way to Berlin.

Ms. Britkova said she saw the invasion of Ukraine as a continuation of the same war, a false narrative that Mr. Putin has promoted to justify the violence.

Oleg Matsnev contributed research from Berlin.

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