In Russia, May 9 is Victory Day, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in the World War II. In a tradition inherited from the Soviet Union, Russian leaders mark Victory Day with speeches and a grand military parade through Moscow’s Red Square.
During Vladimir Putin’s 22 years leading Russia, WWII and the Victory Day parade have played a pivotal propaganda role. The Kremlin revised and manipulated WWII history to indoctrinate Russians with the false narrative that the country is under siege from an aggressive West, and that disputing this view is Russophobia.
Although that narrative has been widely debunked, Putin doubled down on it in this year’s Victory Day speech with numerous outright falsehoods or misleading statements.
He claimed that the bloody war against Ukraine was in “defense of the Motherland" to eliminate “Nazis;” that Russia’s occupation forces in Ukraine were “fighting on their own soil;” and that American veterans wanted to celebrate Victory Day in Moscow but were banned from travel by the U.S. government.
Here's why that’s propaganda.
“Executioners, butchers and Nazis”
Putin said: “I now address our Armed Forces and the Donbas militiamen. You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one would forget the lessons of the Second World War, so that there is no place in the world for executioners, butchers and Nazis.”
The invasion Putin launched on February 24 was not provoked by any attack of Ukraine or NATO states. As it massed troops on Ukraine’s border for months, the Kremlin repeatedly said it had no plans to invade. Russian troops are fighting inside the internationally recognized borders of a sovereign nation.
Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly said the war is justified to disarm and “de-nazify” Ukraine. These justifications have been widely disputed or debunked as groundless.
Moreover, 40 nations have filed a joint appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) asking for an investigation of Russia for war crimes and crimes against humanity or genocide. On March 2, the ICJ’s Office of the Prosecutor announced it had launched an investigation into the situation in Ukraine.
Putin’s “de-nazify” language has outraged Jewish communities worldwide, as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. There is no evidence that fascists, Nazi or otherwise, have any significant influence in Ukraine. Putin’s rhetoric has been refuted by Polygraph.info and other fact checkers.
Zelenskyy also delivered a May 9 video address from Kyiv’s fortified streets to counter Putin. The Ukrainian president said Russia has no right to “appropriate” the WWII victory, given that the Ukrainian people also fought in that war against the Nazis and lost thousands of lives to liberate their country.
Zelenskyy said that in today’s war, Russia was acting as Nazi Germany, and he compared the Russian military drive into eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, now the scene of intense fighting, to the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. He ticked off a list of Ukrainian cities in the region, including Kherson and Mariupol, which the Russians have bombed nearly to rubble.
“They [Ukrainian WWII soldiers] expelled the Nazis from all over Ukraine, but the cities I named are especially inspiring us today,” Zelenskyy said. “They give us faith that we will drive the occupiers out of our own land for sure."
Fighting on their own land?
Putin, however, claimed Russia was on “its historical land.”
“Today, the militiamen of Donbas, together with the fighters of the Russian army, are fighting on their own land; where the warriors of Svyatoslav and Vladimir Monomakh, the soldiers of Rumyantsev and Potemkin, Suvorov and Brusilov, defeated the enemy; where the heroes of the Great Patriotic War – Nikolay Vatutin, Sidor Kovpak, Lyudmila Pavlichenko – fought to their death.”
Putin’s choice of figures is telling. Monomakh and Svyatoslav were grand princes of the medieval Kyivan Rus state, centered in the modern day Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Pyotr Rumyantsev became governor of “Little Russia” (a non-native term for Ukraine) after Catherine the Great abolished the Cossack Hetmanate, a Ukrainian Cossack state located in what is now central Ukraine that existed between 1648 and 1764.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Soviet Union’s most successful female sniper in WWII, was an ethnic Russian born in the Kyiv region when it was still part of the Russian Empire.
The message: All of those figures belonged to one Russia.
There is a historical argument for common lineage, but not necessarily how Putin portrays it.
Soviet historians viewed Kyivan Rus “as the common cradle” of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, wrote Serhii Plokhy, a historian and director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.
Imperial Russian historians, and some contemporary Russian historians, by contrast, claimed “Kyivan Rus’ history for one indivisible Russian nation,” said Plokhy.
Putin’s use of Ukrainian and Russian figures interchangeably fits into the Kremlin narrative that there is no separate Ukrainian people. In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, Putin said Ukraine is part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.”
That, analysts told Time magazine, is a “mischaracterization of history intended to justify Russian claims over Ukraine.”
History aside, Donbas is part of the modern Ukrainian state, whose borders Russia had repeatedly recognized until 2014.
As Polygraph.info has noted, when Russia first fomented the conflict in Donbas after annexing Crimea that year, the key military and political leaders in the self-proclaimed separatist “republics” of the Donbas were imported Russian citizens.
That includes the first leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai; Donetsk People’s Republic defense minister Igor “Strelkov” Girkin; “Sparta” Battalion leader Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov; and Rusych militia leader and neo-Nazi Alexei Milchakov.
Girkin, a Russian army veteran and “former” Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel, has already gone on record saying there would have been no war in eastern Ukraine if his unit “had not crossed the border.”
Russia’s servicemen operating in Ukraine are participating in an illegal invasion. The U.N. charter prohibits “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” except in self-defense. Russia has been unable to provide credible evidence that Ukraine or NATO states planned any attack on Russia, instead spreading falsehoods about U.S. bioweapons labs or Ukraine securing nuclear weapons.
In March, 141 countries at the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion and calling on Moscow to unconditionally withdraw its forces.
U.S. veterans banned?
Amid the fallout over Russia’s invasion, the Kremlin announced last month that no foreign leaders were invited to the Victory Day parade this year, as it was not a milestone anniversary.
“This is our holiday; this is a holy holiday for all of Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Yet, Putin brought up the absence of American veterans during his speech. He claimed American WWII veterans had wanted to come to the parade but “in fact, they were forbidden to do so.”
This is unsubstantiated. Because of the war, the U.S. State Department has recommended that Americans refrain from travel to Russia as “a matter of safety and security.” However, a U.S. citizen is free to ignore that warning.