President Vladimir Putin evoked the spirit of the Soviet army that defeated Nazi German forces at Stalingrad 80 years ago to declare on Thursday that Russia would defeat a Ukraine supposedly in the grip of a new incarnation of Nazism.
In a fiery speech in Volgograd, known as Stalingrad until 1961, Putin lambasted Germany for helping to arm Ukraine and said, not for the first time, that he was ready to draw on Russia’s entire arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons.
“Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin told an audience of army officers and members of local patriotic and youth groups.
“Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”
Russian officials have been drawing parallels with the struggle against the Nazis ever since Russian forces entered Ukraine almost a year ago.
Ukraine – which was part of the Soviet Union and itself suffered devastation at the hands of Hitler’s forces – rejects those parallels as spurious pretexts for a war of imperial conquest.
Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle of World War Two, when the Soviet Red Army, at a cost of over 1 million casualties, broke the back of German invasion forces in 1942-3.
Putin evoked what he said was the spirit of the defenders of Stalingrad to explain why he thought Russia would prevail in Ukraine, saying the World War Two battle had become a symbol of “the indestructible nature of our people”.
“Those who draw European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia, and … expect to win a victory over Russia on the battlefield, apparently don’t understand that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them,” he added.
“We don’t send our tanks to their borders but we have the means to respond, and it won’t end with the use of armoured vehicles, everyone must understand that.”
As Putin finished speaking, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Putin had earlier laid flowers at the grave of the Soviet marshal who oversaw the defence of Stalingrad and visited the city’s main memorial complex, where he held a minute’s silence in honour of those who died during the battle.
Thousands of people lined Volgograd’s streets to watch a victory parade as planes flew overhead and modern and World War Two-era tanks and armoured vehicles rolled past.
Some of the modern vehicles had the letter ‘V’ painted on them, a symbol used by Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
Irina Zolotoreva, a 61-year-old who said her relatives had fought at Stalingrad, saw a parallel with Ukraine.
“Our country is fighting for justice, for freedom. We got victory in 1942 and that’s an example for today’s generation. I think we’ll win again now whatever happens.”
The focal point for the commemorations was the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex, on a hill overlooking the River Volga dominated by a hulking statue called The Motherland Calls – of a woman brandishing a giant sword.
The five-month-long battle reduced the city that bore Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s name to rubble, while claiming an estimated 2 million dead and wounded on both sides.
A new bust of Stalin was erected in Volgograd on Wednesday along with two others, of Soviet marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilyevsky.
Despite Stalin’s record of presiding over a famine that killed millions and political repression that killed hundreds of thousands, Russian politicians and school textbooks have in recent years stressed his role as a successful wartime leader who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower.