Thousands of soldiers and scores of tanks rumbled across Red Square and dozens of aircraft new and old roared overhead Saturday, as Russia marked the 70th anniversary of the Nazi defeat during World War II.
This year’s parade took place as Russia’s relations with many of the countries the Soviet Union was allied with have plummeted to dangerous levels. Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, and its support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine have cast a pall over both the victory celebrations and Moscow’s relations with the West in general.
U.S. President Barack Obama and many Western leaders — Germany, Britain, France — boycotted the parade, leaving President Vladimir Putin to host about 20 leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon, to watch the show of strength.
“Our entire multiethnic nation rose to fight for our Motherland’s freedom. Everyone bore the severe burden of the war,” Putin said in a speech broadcast live on state television. “Together, our people made an immortal exploit to save the country. They predetermined the outcome of World War II. They liberated European nations from the Nazis.”
The celebration marking the end of conflict, known to generations of Russians and Soviets as the Great Patriotic War, is among the country’s most venerated holidays, a celebration of the fortitude the country showed in defeating the Nazis and the horrific losses it endured.
Various Russian and Western estimates put the overall death toll, civilian and military, from the war at more than 20 million.
Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, have traditionally marked the Nazi defeat on May 9, one day after the event is celebrated in the United States and the rest of Europe, due to the time when the announcement was made in May 1945.
Ukraine, which also suffered catastrophic losses, marked the day ahead of Russia for the first time, underscoring the deep rift it and Russia now face.
European and American leaders marked the anniversary with smaller scale events. In Washington, vintage aircraft flew over the capital in honor of veterans visiting for the events.
The United States has traditionally called May 8 Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, to underscore the fact that the U.S. fight against Imperial Japan continued for three months after the Nazi defeat.
Video – Tanks Head to Red Square for Victory Day Parade
In his weekly address, U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to veterans and urged Americans today to rededicate themselves “to the freedoms for which they fought.”
“Let’s stand united with our allies, in Europe and beyond, on behalf of our common values — freedom, security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law around the world — and against bigotry and hatred in all their forms so that we give meaning to that pledge: ‘Never forget. Never again,'” Obama said.
French President Francois Hollande also called for unity, describing VE Day as “the victory of an ideal over a totalitarian ideology.”
In Paris, Hollande placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also took part in the ceremony.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron participated in commemorations, while Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to attend a ceremoney at Westminster Abbey on Sunday.