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Putin speaks at Russian Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square

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MOSCOW – Fighter jets streaked over St. Basil’s Cathedral on Friday, missiles and tanks rumbled down Red Square, and Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to defend his nation’s interests at a triumphant Red Square parade that highlighted Russia’s current military might and marked the victory over Germany in World War II.

Swearing that the memories of Russia’s hard-earned World War II battles would never be forgotten, Putin addressed aging veterans and his country on Victory Day, one of the most emotionally charged holidays of the Russian calendar. The commemoration came fresh off Russia’s annexation of Crimea and as thousands of the nations troops massed on the border with Ukraine, poised to invade – and to create new wartime veterans – if Putin gives the command.

Putin made no explicit reference to the tumultuous events in Ukraine in his four-minute address, focusing simply on service and honoring the memory of veterans who gave their lives to defend their country. But when an armored personnel carrier flying the flag of Crimea rolled past the tribune, the crowd went wild with applause. The peninsula was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.

“We will never allow the betrayal and oblivion of the heroes, all those who selflessly safeguarded peace on our planet,” Putin said, speaking on a tribune in front of the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. “We will take care of Russia and its glorious history, and we will always put service to the Motherland at the very top. That is how it has always been in our country.”

On a warm spring day, 11,000 soldiers and more than 150 military vehicles paraded across Red Square, past St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Under a crystal blue sky – the government seeded clouds in advance so that they disappeared – 69 planes and helicopters streaked above a crowd of veterans and their guests. Many of the aging veterans were wearing a chestful of medals, which clinked in the wind.

The holiday came amid escalating violence in Ukraine that threatens to worsen within days, with Victory Day commemorations on Friday providing new flashpoints for confrontation and a planned Sunday independence referendum in Ukraine’s east that has been organized by pro-Russian separatists. If that poll sparks further deaths, Russia might invade, having promised that it would defend Russian interests in Ukraine if they came under attack.

Putin on Wednesday appeared to seek conciliation when he called for the referendum to be postponed, but the loosely-organized band of separatists quickly decided that they would proceed anyway, in part, some said, because momentum was behind them. Last week, clashes erupted in the previously peaceful port city of Odessa, leaving more than 40 people dead, most of those pro-Russian protesters who were trapped in a blaze when a building was set on fire.

Russian television stations – all of which are now pro-Kremlin after the more skeptical TV Rain was pushed off cable packages in January – have devoted non-stop programming to cataloging allegations of abuse in Ukraine, resurrecting World War II-era language to describe portions of Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Nazis. Putin’s approval ratings have soared to multi-year heights, above 80 percent.

At the parade, a dwindling band of veterans – almost all of whom are 87 or older in a nation where life expectancy for men even now hovers below 65 – wore medals and their faded green and blue uniforms. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu saluted in a Soviet-era Zil limousine that slowly drove him past scores of troops. Then Russia’s white, blue and red flag and the wartime red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union were marched into the square, accompanied by a wartime-era march.

Putin spoke, wearing a red tie and the black-and-orange St. George’s Ribbon that is a tsarist-era military order of valor but has been repurposed in recent years as a way to honor veterans and that on Friday was on almost every lapel in Moscow.

“Today we are honoring the memory of those killed in the war, those who are not with us today,” Putin said. “Every family honors its devotion to the Motherland. A continuous link between generations is our national wealth. The strength and dignity of Russia is based on it.”

And then one military company after another marched through Red Square. The men on foot were followed by columns of armored personnel carriers, tanks, Iskander-M missile launchers, and even several Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles, which slowly rolled through the square atop massive carriers. MiG fighter jets streaked through the air.

And after an hour, the parade was over.

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