- - Thursday, May 9, 2019

MOSCOW — Intercontinental nuclear missile launchers rumbled across Red Square at a World War II Victory Day parade in Moscow Thursday amid growing fears of a new arms race between Russia and the United States.

It was the first year that no foreign leaders attended the parade. Many have stayed away since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, so the Kremlin stopped inviting them.

Still, President Vladimir Putin seized on the event as a celebration of Russian patriotism.

After hailing the sacrifices Soviet troops and civilians made to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II, better known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, Mr. Putin pledged that his country would continue to strengthen its military capabilities.

“The lessons of the past war are relevant once again. We have done and will do everything necessary to ensure the high level of readiness of our armed forces,” he said. “We call on all countries to realize our shared responsibility for creating an effective, balanced security system.”

He made the comments roughly three months after President Trump announced that the U.S. would begin withdrawing Washington from a key Cold War-era arms treaty that banned the deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges of up to 3,500 miles.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, brought an end to the buildup of nuclear missiles in Europe.

Mr. Putin, whom Washington accuses of having violated the treaty in recent years, has threatened to target the United States with nuclear missiles if Washington moves to deploy warheads prohibited by the landmark deal.

Although Victory Day is dedicated to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, the communist state staged only a handful of military parades in Moscow to commemorate the event, which did not become a public holiday until 1965. Under Mr. Putin, Russia has used the anniversary of the end of the war to display its military might and to promote what opposition critics say is an aggressive form of nationalism.

Yars ballistic missile launch units, advanced S-400 air defense missile systems, tanks and 13,000 troops were on display during the Red Square parade. Also participating was the recently created Youth Army, a Kremlin-backed military organization with almost half a million members ages 4 to 18.

Cheering crowds, including small children wearing Red Army hats, waved Russian and Soviet flags as heavy weaponry was transported through central Moscow. A flyover by dozens of fighter jets was canceled because of heavy cloud cover.

“I brought my grandchildren here to teach them that we must never forget those who saved the world from fascism,” said Tamara Borisova, 65. “In the West, people don’t realize how much our Soviet people suffered to defeat the Nazis.”

At least 24 million Soviet citizens and soldiers — about 14% of the communist state’s population — are estimated to have died during World War II. The total death toll for the United States during the 1939-1945 conflict was about 420,000.

After the parade Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people marched along Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, which leads directly to the Kremlin, carrying portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Mr. Putin, whose father was wounded during the war, was among them.

State media said some 10 million people participated in so-called Immortal Regiment marches across the country.

Military parades were held in almost 30 towns and cities across Russia, from its borders with Eastern Europe to Sakhalin Island, near Japan. In Pyatigorsk, a city in Russia’s south, over 500 kindergarten students dressed in full military uniform took part in an event described as a “parade of preschool troops” that Kremlin critics said was a perfect illustration of the militarization of Russian society under Mr. Putin.

Despite Mr. Putin’s promise to further boost Russia’s armed forces, Moscow’s defense budget has been in decline for the past two years. Although Russia’s military is involved in campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, its defense budget shrank by 3.5% in 2018 to $61.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The slump in military spending followed a 20% decline in 2017 as the Russian economy was hit by Western sanctions and a lower global price for oil, the country’s main export. Research institute analysts said the trend is likely to continue.

Mr. Putin made no direct mention of any other country during his Victory Day address.

“Judging by the president’s speech, Russia no longer needs any allies,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, wrote in an online post.

Steven Seagal, the former Hollywood action star whom Mr. Putin last year named as Russia’s special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States, was among the few foreign guests at the Red Square parade. President George W. Bush attended in 2005.

Although Soviet soldiers died defending what was an officially atheist state, Victory Day has taken on an increasingly religious element. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publicly crossed himself as he gave the signal for the start of the parade on Red Square.

Next year, Russia will unveil a massive Orthodox Christian cathedral near Moscow in honor of its military triumph in World War II. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, financed the cathedral’s main religious icon out of his own pocket.

Mr. Peskov has declined to reveal how much Mr. Putin paid.

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