Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, has warned at a military parade in Red Square that Moscow will teach foreign aggressors the “lessons” of the Second World War.
Nuclear missile launchers and battle tanks were driven through the centre of Moscow, while air force bombers flew above the city’s skyline, as Russia celebrated victory over Nazi Germany 64 years ago. Mr Medvedev ordered the Soviet-style parade of might to remind the world that Russia remained a powerful military force.
With Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, standing beside him, Mr Medvedev told thousands of troops drawn up on the cobbles of Red Square that Russia still faced external threats to its security.
“The victory over fascism is a great example and a great lesson for all people and is still current today when people are again starting military adventures,” he said.
The president’s comments seemed to be primarily directed at Georgia, with which Russia fought a five-day war last year, but could also be a coded warning to the United States, some observers said. Washington is planning to build a missile defence shield in central Europe, a project that has been repeatedly condemned in Moscow.
Mr Medvedev said that foreign designs against Russia would meet the same response it gave the Nazis during the War.
“We are sure that any aggression against our citizens will be given a worthy reply,” he said.
The parade was the biggest show of force since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Last year, under an initiative from Mr Putin, tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles reappeared in Red Square after a 17-year hiatus as part of a drive to show off Russia’s military resurgence.
The parade saw the first public appearance of Russia’s much vaunted S-400 Triumph air defence system, which Moscow says can engage enemy aircraft, including those equipped with Stealth technology, at a distance of 250 miles.
Known by Nato as the SA-21 Growler, it is reportedly much more powerful than the MIM-104 Patriot, its closest US rival. The United States has expressed concern that Russia could sell the system to Iran.
The increasingly nationalistic tone of Victory Day, while welcomed overwhelmingly by ordinary Russians, has prompted concern from leaders of other ex-Soviet states, who say it is evidence of Moscow’s growing belligerence.
At Victory Day commemorations in Kiev, Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, called on Europe not to tolerate the revival of authoritarianism on the continent, in an apparent dig at Russia.
“You went through the hell of the war against fascism,” he said. “Today, in the modern era, it should be unthinkable to tolerate even the smallest hint of a revival of a totalitarian or authoritarian system that violates the sacred right of sovereign peoples to exist independently.”
Like Georgia, its fellow pro-western ally, Ukraine has been at odds with Russia since the state abandoned its pro-Kremlin course following the Orange Revolution of 2004.
An increasing reluctance among ex-Communist states on Russia’s western border to see the Soviet Union as liberators rather than occupiers has incensed the Kremlin.
On the eve of the Victory Day parade, Mr Medvedev appeared to give backing to a controversial proposal that would make it a criminal offence, carrying up to five years in prison, to make such an argument — a move that could see some foreign leaders banned from entering Russia.
The legislation, which is to be introduced in the next few weeks, would punish anyone who denied the Soviet Union’s victory in the War and could be extended to target those who criticized Stalin’s tactics or described Moscow’s seizure of the Baltic states as “occupation”.
“We will not allow anybody to cast doubt on the achievements of our nation,” Mr Medvedev said.
Soviet troops invaded the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — in 1939 after being “awarded” the territory under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Germany, then an ally of Moscow. The Nazis then forced the Soviets out in 1941.
Soviet troops returned in 1944, but the Baltic States deny this amounted to liberation as they argue that the Nazis had already abandoned their territory without a fight. The Soviets remained for 46 years, a period that saw of tens of thousands of civilians deported to labour camps in Siberia.
Latvia has called on the European Union to condemn the proposed legislation.
“The EU should make clear that such legislation is not acceptable,” said Inese Vaidere, a Latvian member of the European Parliament. “Its implementation would endanger the most basic freedom of speech, as all conclusions and reflections made in contrast to the official Russian rhetoric would lead to criminal liability.”