MOSCOW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people marched through Moscow under flags and banners hailing Russia as a great power on Tuesday in an annual parade which this year amounted to a show of defiance to the West over Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin did not join the march marking “Unity Day” but later delivered a speech portraying Russia as morally superior in the standoff with the West and saying it had united in the face of “difficult challenges”.
Politicians went much further in their own displays of patriotic fervor at a concert after the march, which police said had attracted more than 70,000 people, some of them dancing and singing and many waving the Russian tricolor.
Others held banners and signs such as “A people that is united is a people that cannot be defeated” and “Our unity is our strength”. Some had banners supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in east Ukraine.
At the open-air concert near Red Square, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called for Russian recognition of elections held on Sunday to legitimize the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine.
In a typically fiery speech, populist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky hailed Putin for reclaiming Crimea from Ukraine in March and spat defiance at the West over sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
“And Unity Day will come to Ukraine, but it will be Unity Day in Novorossiya and Malorossiya, and let people in western Ukraine have their own little state power,” Zhirinovsky said, referring to the territory in Ukraine which some nationalists regard as historically Russian.
“The United States can celebrate Independence Day, but they must remember the Russian Navy helped their struggle against the British colonialists. The Europeans can speak about democracy and human rights but the Soviet army liberated Europe from fascism which is again rising in west Ukraine and other areas.”
Crooner Joseph Kobzon, who visited east Ukraine last week in a show of support for the rebels, said before opening the concert with a patriotic song: “We are strong and people fear us. Let them be afraid.”
Unity Day commemorates a popular rising against a Polish invasion in 1612 and was revived under Putin in 2005.
Marches and rallies in Russia are often organized by groups loyal to the Kremlin or by factories that want to curry favor, but the authorities are likely to hold the march up as a display of unity behind Putin in the face of the Western sanctions.
The sanctions, which target people close to him and state companies in the energy, finance and defense sectors, are intended to weaken support for his policies but polls show his popularity ratings are still over 80 percent.
He has hit back with some of the fiercest attacks of Western policy, and particularly the United States, since he first rose to power in 2000. This has rallied support in Russia though he risks being isolated by the West.
“Dear friends, this year we have had to face difficult challenges. And as has happened more than once in our history, our people responded by consolidating and with a moral and spiritual upsurge,” Putin told a gala reception.
“The desire for justice, for truth has always been honored in Russia. And threats will not force us to abandon our values and ideals.”
He also lay flowers on Red Square with various religious leaders from different faiths and kissed an icon - again underlining his closeness to the Russian Orthodox Church, the religion practiced by tens of millions of compatriots.
Since annexing Crimea following the overthrow of a Ukrainian president sympathetic to Moscow in February, Putin has defied the West by backing the separatists in mainly Russian-speaking east Ukraine.
He has denied sending troops or weapons to back the rebels but the West says it has overwhelming evidence of direct Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
Writing by Timothy Heritage; editing by Janet McBride