MOSCOW (Reuters) - Tanks and troops paraded across Moscow’s Red Square on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, an event boycotted by Western leaders over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the anniversary to whip up patriotism and anti-Western sentiment; at a parade in Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko said Moscow was trying to hog the credit for the World War Two victory at Ukraine’s expense.
Though Western leaders stayed away, Putin was joined under the Kremlin’s walls by about 30 foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, sitting on his right-hand side.
In a sign of closer ties between the two, a column of Chinese troops took part. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was also the spectators, as were dignitaries from India, former Soviet republics and communist-era allies such as Cuba.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel skipped the parade, as did U.S. President Barack Obama and the French and British leaders, but was to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on Sunday.
On show in Moscow was the Armata T-14, Russia’s first new tank for 40 years. Soldiers, some in World War Two uniforms, filed past under blue skies and bright sunshine.
War veterans watched from the grandstand, chests bristling with medals, while crowds choked side streets around the Kremlin, cheering as fighter jets roared overhead.
“Victory Day is the most important holiday for Russia. In practically every Russian family, someone has died fighting for this country,” said 43-year-old former marine Alexander Smolkin, wearing his light-blue beret, medals and military fatigues.
“My own grandfather died defending Russia, this is our day to remember them.”
Putin has said fascism could be on the rise again and suggested other countries are rewriting history to play down Moscow’s role in winning the war.
“The basic principles of international cooperation have been ignored more often in the last decades - the principles that were hard won by humankind following the global hardships of the war,” he told ranks of soldiers standing to attention.
“We’ve seen attempts to create a unipolar world,” he said, echoing a 2007 speech when he lambasted the West’s world view.
Putin later led more than 500,000 people holding pictures of relatives who fought in the war through Red Square, one of the largest turnouts in memory for the “Immortal Regiment” march.
“I‘m very happy that my father is with me now, I‘m holding his portrait in my hands,” Putin said in a televised broadcast.
Many Russians saw the West’s boycott as disrespect. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens were killed in the war, which began for the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Ukraine says it lost 8-10 million citizens, including 3.5 million who fought in the Soviet forces.
Poroshenko rebuked Moscow for accusing Ukrainians of using “fascist” methods to oust Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February last year, an event that prompted Russia to annex Crimea from Ukraine and pro-Russian forces to start a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian nationalism has been vulnerable to accusations of fascist sympathies ever since a number of Ukrainians, especially Stepan Bandera’s nationalist militia, welcomed the Nazi occupation as a means to fight Soviet Communist rule. Moscow now makes much of the fact that Yanukovich’s overthrow was backed by the far-right group Right Sector.
“It is the utmost cynicism to depict our country as a supposedly fascist state,” Poroshenko said on Saturday. “It is done with the aim of justifying to the Russian people its own criminal action: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”
Ukraine had joined most of Europe in commemorating the end of the war on Friday, a day before Russia.
“We will never again mark this day with the Russian scenario that cold-bloodedly uses our Victory Day as an apology for its expansionist policies and for keeping its neighbors in its orbit and recreating empire,” Poroshenko said.
More than 6,100 people have been killed in fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine, which Kiev says has been stoked by Russia.
Though a ceasefire is still tenuously holding, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday that separatists, backed by Russia, were shelling government forces in the east and southeast.
It said four Ukrainian servicemen had been wounded in the past 24 hours.
In formerly communist east Berlin, several thousand people, mainly Russians, including some “Night Wolves” bikers, marked the anniversary of the end of the war by laying flowers at the Soviet War Memorial in Treptow.
Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets in Kiev and Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Louise Ireland and Kevin Liffey