President Vladimir Putin has warned that his nuclear forces were “always” on alert and added that Moscow would not tolerate any Western threats, in an address at the annual Victory Day parade.
In a defiant speech on Red Square before thousands of soldiers dressed in ceremonial attire, Putin heaped praise on his army fighting in Ukraine and accused “Western elites” of fomenting conflicts around the world.
“Russia will do everything to prevent a global clash, but at the same time we will not allow anyone to threaten us. Our strategic forces are always on alert,” Putin told the crowd. “Russia is now going through a difficult, crucial period. The fate of the Motherland, its future depends on each of us.”
The May 9 parade commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and has become the Kremlin’s most important public holiday as Putin puts the country firmly on a combat footing.
Putin has used nuclear rhetoric throughout the conflict but has grown increasingly belligerent since last year, pulling out of a nuclear test ban treaty and a key arms reduction agreement with the United States.
Earlier this week, he ordered the Russian military to hold nuclear drills involving the navy and troops based near Ukraine, raising fears he could use the powerful weapons on the battlefield.
Putin said that there was nothing unusual in a planned exercise involving the practice deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in southern Russia along with ally Belarus, as preparations for the drills have begun.
Russia said on Monday that it would practise the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons as part of a military exercise after what Moscow said were threats from France, Britain and the United States.
“There is nothing unusual here, this is planned work,” state news agency Tass reported Putin as saying. “It is training.”
Russia’s defence ministry, in its announcement on Monday, explicitly linked the nuclear exercise to “provocative statements and threats by certain Western officials against the Russian Federation”.
In comments recorded on Tuesday but released by the Kremlin after the parade, Putin vowed to modernise his army’s weaponry and said Russia would use whatever foreign parts it could get to make them.
“Modern military technology is changing very fast. If we want to be successful, we always have to be one step ahead,” he said in a meeting with army commanders.
Putin has repeatedly framed the current fight against Ukraine as an existential battle against “Nazism”, a message that he reiterated in his address yesterday.
“We bow our heads before the memory of civilians killed by barbaric shelling and terrorist attacks by neo-Nazis,” he said, adding: “Those on the front line, on the line of contact – are our heroes. We bow before your steadfastness and self-sacrifice, selflessness. All Russia is with you.”
Two women were killed yesterday by Ukrainian shelling of Russia’s border regions, which have been regularly attacked by Ukraine since the conflict began.
Shelling on a village street in the Belgorod region close to the border killed one, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said.
Further west in the Kursk region, a woman was killed by a direct hit on a house in a village near the border, while another woman suffered shrapnel wounds, Governor Roman Starovoyt wrote on Telegram.
An overnight aerial attack on the city of Belgorod, around 30km (20 miles) from Ukraine, injured 11, Gladkov said earlier.
Security in Moscow was tight ahead of this year’s parade, amid repeated Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory and after an Islamic State group attack on a concert hall near the capital in March killed dozens.
Other parts of Russia including the western Kursk and Pskov regions cancelled their parades due to security concerns.
The Moscow parade featured columns of Russian military equipment but was notably scaled back compared to past years as Moscow mobilises its resources for the Ukrainian front.
“We come to see it every year,” said 44-year-old Yelena Melikhova, who watched the procession of military equipment heading to Red Square. “It’s very touching, very exciting.”
Svetlana Sycheva, 48, said she was filled with “pride” while watching the parade.
“Even in such difficult times we have the opportunity to rejoice, and to feel the emotions that we have just experienced,” she told AFP.
Russia often invites representatives from countries it deems “friendly” to the event, though attendance had dwindled even before it sent troops into Ukraine in early 2022 amid a stand-off with the West.
Nine world leaders attended yesterday’s parade – the heads of ex-Soviet republics Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – as well as the leaders of Cuba, Laos and Guinea-Bissau.
The 71-year-old Putin has ruled Russia since the turn of the century, securing a fresh six-year mandate in March after winning presidential elections devoid of all opposition.
Russia’s army held off a much-hyped Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, and it has since made gains on the front lines as Kyiv struggles with ammunition and manpower shortages.
Yesterday’s festivities come two days after Putin vowed at a lavish inauguration to “overcome all obstacles, realise everything we have planned, and together, we will win”.
Russia and the United States are by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers, holding more than 10,600 of the world’s 12,100 nuclear warheads.
China has the third-largest nuclear arsenal, followed by France and Britain.
Russia has about 1,558 non-strategic nuclear warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists, though there is uncertainty about exact figures for such weapons due to a lack of transparency.
There is still much uncertainty among arms controls experts about what weapons Russia has supplied to Belarus and the nature of their storage.
Typically, it would take some time to create the storage, security and barracks for such a deployment – and Russian nuclear weapons are controlled by the Russian defence ministry’s 12th Main Directorate (known as 12th GUMO).
It is unclear if 12th GUMO is in Belarus, according to Western experts.
No power has used nuclear weapons in war since the United States unleashed the first atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
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