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Russia's Victory Day takes on added significance because of the crisis in Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Russia is marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to link what is called the Great Patriotic War to his military movements in Ukraine. Putin spoke at Red Square this morning. And NPR's Charles Maynes was there. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did Putin say?

MAYNES: Well, you know, right from the beginning, he said what we kind of expected, in a way. He was drawing parallels between World War II and the conflict in Ukraine, particularly the Donbas in east Ukraine, saying that these were examples of Russia defending itself through the years. You know, and Putin had used this stage again to make the case to the Russian public of why Russian forces are in Ukraine. And he listed these various grievances that we've heard over the past several months, you know, that this is about the U.S. wanting to dominate the world. This is about NATO expanding towards Russia borders. It's about the West not acknowledging the Soviet sacrifice in World War II and, of course, about the Kremlin wanting to defeat fascism on the rise in Ukraine today. And I think, in short, it was kind of a wide swath to the public to try and sort of convince them one more time for why this was necessary. And there was this interesting moment. I want to just have us listen in here for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Putin is saying that on Red Square today in front of us are soldiers and officers from different regions of Russia, you know, people of different ethnicities, many of whom were fighting in the Donbas. And he recognized the sacrifice of families of the injured and the dead. And, you know, that may all sound perfectly normal. But to me, it tells us that still, after more than two months into this conflict, you know, Putin is still building his case to the Russian public.

INSKEEP: Well, while making that case, what announcements did he not make?

MAYNES: Well, you know, going into this, there was a lot of speculation that Putin might try and announce some symbolic victory, perhaps about the control of some key cities in east Ukraine. Others thought he might expand the conflict, declare formal war rather than this special military operation that they're in right now, which has kind of a limited scope, you know, and might expand it to explain that they were at war with the West. In the end, he did neither. He hinted at some things but without any major announcement, at least not right now, which suggests that the public support for, you know, mass mobilization, essentially a draft, just isn't there. So the message really was, stay the course, you know? The special military operation will grind on.

INSKEEP: What was it like to be present for all of this, Charles?

MAYNES: You know, it's strange. I mean, you know, behind the scenes, you bus with journalists to Red Square, you know? The final piece of advice as you arrive is to not run on Red Square, the implication being that there are a lot of people with guns who - and you might make them nervous. Good to know. But once you're there, you know, you see soldiers kind of milling about, trying to get lined up. Soldiers, volunteers are wishing everyone happy holidays and ushering people into the stands. And these soldiers seem to be warming up their voices with an occasional hurrah or hurray. And that all happens before the band strikes up and the parade gets underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: Now that may not sound modest, but it was more modest than previous years. That seems to be a reflection of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. There was a smaller display of military hardware, you know? We had several dozen tanks, some rocket launchers. But it was also windy out there today. The air show was canceled, no jets, including the appearance of the Flying Kremlin. That didn't happen. This is the Air Force One-like government in the sky that's intended for Putin to ride in amid a nuclear strike.

INSKEEP: How did people respond to what show that there was?

MAYNES: Well, this was certainly the Russian leader's crowd - I mean, it's invitation-only, a lot of lawmakers, cabinetmakers, celebrities, et cetera. But I think it's worth pointing out that in conversations you have with people away from Red Square, there's some real - people have mixed feelings about the way that the authorities have really monopolized this holiday. It used to be about celebrating peace and an end to this horrific experience of World War II. Today, it's really about the war itself and celebrating doing it again.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks, as always.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.