The war in Ukraine has prompted officials across Russia to scale back annual celebrations of Victory Day, the country’s most important national holiday, with more than 20 cities forgoing military parades and organizers canceling a popular nationwide march to honor veterans.
Security concerns were most often cited for Tuesday’s flurry of event cancellations, but some analysts have suggested the unease has as much to do with fears of domestic unrest.
It’s an unprecedented step in a country where parades, which commemorate the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II, have become a signature event for President Vladimir V. Putin.
Over the years, he has framed the day not just as a celebration of a historic victory, but also of Russia’s current need to thwart the Western forces he says are still trying to destroy it. More recently, he has attempted to wrap Ukraine in this narrative, misrepresenting it as a Nazi redoubt.
The country’s largest parade, outside the Kremlin in Red Square, is still expected to be the usual display of raw military power, with rows of carefully choreographed soldiers marching amid weapons ranging from vintage tanks to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr. Putin must also address the nation.
But outside of Moscow, a recent spate of drone attacks on military or infrastructure targets in cities like Sevastopol in Crimea, home port of the Black Sea Fleet, as well as other attacks in bordering regions of Ukraine, made officials think. Even the Kremlin has not been immune, with two drones destroyed over Mr Putin’s office last week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed his nation’s claim to the holiday, with a speech on Monday drawing a parallel between World War II and the current war against invading Russians. From now on, he said, May 9 will be called Europe Day, commemorating “the unity of all Europeans who destroyed Nazism and will defeat Ruscism”, a Ukrainian term combining “Russian” and “fascism”.
“We fought then and we fight now so that no one will enslave other nations and destroy other countries,” he said.
In Russia, various regional governors have cited security concerns over the cancellation of Victory Day events. They generally didn’t go into detail, but in Belgorod, a region bordering Ukraine, the governor suggested slow-moving military vehicles and marching soldiers could make attractive targets.
“There will be no parade so as not to provoke the enemy with a large amount of equipment and soldiers piled up in the center of Belgorod,” Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said. “The refusal to hold the parade is linked to the safety of the inhabitants of the region.”
Many regions banned drone flights during the events, and the Readovka media outlet on Telegram reported that National Guard units received anti-drone weapons.
Igor Artamonov, the governor of the Lipetsk region, also close to Ukraine, said his decision should not be misinterpreted.
“We are not afraid, we are not raising our hands,” he wrote on Telegram. “No neo-Nazi scum will be able to spoil the great Victory Day. But neither do we have the right to endanger people. It is clear to everyone that the parades take place in strictly demarcated squares at strictly defined times.
The cancellation of the National Immortal Regiment March, when ordinary Russians take to the streets to display pictures of their veteran ancestors, is perhaps the most striking change. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said the march was canceled as a “precautionary measure” against possible attacks.
Some governors said they did not want to gather large numbers of people in the midst of war. But some analysts have suggested the Kremlin may be nervous that putting large crowds of Russians on the streets at such a difficult time could lead to civil unrest, even with Russia’s draconian wartime laws against protests.
It could be particularly volatile, analysts say, if thousands turn up with photos of those just killed in the war, revealing the scale of a toll the government has tried to cover up. Some portraits of soldiers killed in Ukraine were carried during celebrations last year, but the number was far lower then, just two months after the fighting began.
“People will not come out with portraits of their great-grandfathers,” Elvira Vikhareva, a political activist, wrote on Facebook. “People will come out with portraits of their fathers, sons and brothers. The regiment will not turn out to be “immortal”, but quite mortal, and the scale will be visible.
Whatever the reason, Russian officials have tried to promote an alternative, suggesting that people upload the portraits to a special website or affix portraits of their veteran ancestors to their vehicles and apartment windows.
Some local leaders far from Ukraine said they were canceling their parades in solidarity with frontline regions. In the Pskov region, home to a notorious parachute division that has been devastated by fighting and implicated in potential war crimes, Governor Mikhail Vedernikov said the sound of fireworks would disturb recovering soldiers and that the money would be better spent on their needs.
Other regions planned to go ahead with festivities, but on a smaller scale. In St. Petersburg, there will be no air force overflights, for example.
Some pro-war bloggers complained that the men and equipment traditionally shown in many parades would be more useful at the front, bolstering the troubled war effort.
Governor Vedernikov suggested a twist, saying, “We should not celebrate the victory, but do everything we can to bring it closer.
Milana Mazaeva, Alina Lobzina And Bengali Shashank contributed report.