MOSCOW – Tens of thousands of granite-faced soldiers marched in lockstep across Red Square Monday in Russia's annual Victory Day display of military might, while President Dmitry Medvedev said the country is committed to peace and global stability.
The parade, marking the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, is the centerpiece of Russia's most solemn secular holiday, both commemorating the Soviet Union's enormous sacrifices in the war and asserting the potency of its modern military.
The 20,000 troops who strode in precision formation through the vast square outside the Kremlin were followed by more than 100 pieces of mobile military hardware, from armored personnel carriers to lumbering Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launchers. It concluded with a squadron of helicopters carrying flags over the square but, unusually for recent years, did not include warplanes.
Although Russian armed forces suffered from severe funding shortages and morale problems in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the parade put forth the image of a spit-and-polish and vigorous military, with an emphasis on discipline and precision. The parade announcer even praised the "maximal synchronization" with which the cars carrying Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Moscow Military District commander Col.-Gen. Valery Gerasimov approached each other in the center of the square.
Medvedev told the crowd, which included many war veterans festooned with medals and ribbons, that restoring the military would continue.
"The state will continue to do everything to guarantee the dignity of military service, to actively upgrade the armed forces so that the troops will have the most modern equipment," Medvedev said.
"Today Russia firmly upholds the principles of peaceful cooperation, consistently advocates for a security system and contributes to the overall effort to maintain global stability in the world," he said in the speech from a tribune set up in front of the Lenin Mausoleum.
The mausoleum, the focal point of the square, was hidden behind an elaborate scrim painted to mark the holiday, reflecting the symbolic delicacy of commemorating a victory achieved by the Soviet regime that is now largely discredited. Some of the marching military units carried period flags bearing the Communist hammer-and-sickle emblem.
In Ukraine, tensions have been high over the use of Soviet symbols since President Viktor Yanukovych said he would sign a bill allowing red hammer-and-sickle banners to be hung from government buildings on Victory Day. About 50 members of a Ukrainian nationalist group clashed Monday with a small group of pro-Russian activists who were headed to a war memorial.
Last year's Victory Day period was marked by repeated complaints from Medvedev and other officials that some countries denigrate the Soviet Union's contribution in WWII, in which some 26 million Soviets died, according to some estimates.
But Medvedev made no reference to the issue this year and made of a point of noting the efforts of the other Allies.
"Now, new generations are reinforcing the traditions of friendship and cooperation with those nations who together with us celebrate victory. And I sincerely congratulate the veterans of all countries," he said.
But in neighboring Belarus, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko used the day to lash out.
"Today we again see a policy of dictation and aggression by an array of countries and military blocs, interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states, the dawn of international terrorism. These occurrences unwillingly call to mind associations with the period of the Great Patriotic War," Lukashenko said, using the Russian and Soviet term for World War II.
He did not denounce countries by name, but made clear the criticism included Western nations.
"We are seeing the leaders of well-known countries making the decision with insane, terrible ease to bomb peaceful cities, dooming thousands of women and children and the elderly and moreover calling themselves democratic states," he said after laying a wreath at a war memorial in the capital Minsk.
Medvedev on Sunday released a message congratulating other former Soviet republics on their contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, but Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, complained that the message was not addressed to its president; the other former Soviet republics' leaders were mentioned by name in the message, as were the leaders of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia recognizes as independent.
"If this greeting were sincere, it should have been sent in the accepted official form," said Georgia's deputy foreign minister Nino Kalandadze, according to the Interfax news agency.
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Minsk and Maria Danilova in Kiev contributed to this story.
Jim Heintz can be reached at http://facebook.com/jim.heintz