MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin promised to project Russia’s might on the world stage in a rallying speech on Wednesday to troops and war veterans celebrating victory over Nazi Germany at a military parade bristling with weapons on Red Square.
Two days after starting his six-year term, Putin, flanked by military chiefs and his defense and prime ministers, used the address to reinforce appeals for national unity as he tries to reassert his authority, shaken by months of protests.
Russian courts later jailed two prominent opposition leaders for 15 days for their role in the protests against his return to the Kremlin, sending a new signal that Putin is determined to keep a lid on dissent in his third presidential term.
“Russia consistently follows a policy of strengthening global security and we have a great moral right to stand up determinedly for our positions because our country suffered the blow of Nazism,” Putin said in the annual speech marking Victory in Europe day, delivered from a podium under the Kremlin walls.
He did not refer to any enemy other than evoking the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 at a great human cost, including millions of Soviet victims, at a parade in which goose-stepping troops, tanks and trucks carrying missiles filed past him.
“Barbarians were plotting to destroy whole nations,” he said. “The inevitable happened - responsibility and common resolve prevailed over evil.”
Putin, 59, has often used tough statements on foreign policy to rally people and resorted to anti-American rhetoric in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election. The tactic was also used by Soviet leaders, including on this patriotic holiday evoking the sacrifices of World War Two.
During the election campaign, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of stirring the protests against his 12-year rule by encouraging “mercenary” Kremlin foes.
A Russian general took the rhetoric a notch higher last week by saying Moscow could carry out pre-emptive strikes on future NATO missile defense installations. NATO called such threats “unjustified” and said the system did not threaten Russia.
Putin has said he is ready to go a long way to develop ties with the United States, but has made clear it must be on equal terms with Washington.
Russia, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council has already asserted itself on several fronts, opposing Western-promoted sanctions aimed at long-standing allies Syria and Iran. It has emerged as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main foreign supporter in the conflict there, a stand that has created tension with Western powers.
At Putin’s side was former president Dmitry Medvedev, one day after parliament approved his ally as prime minister, completing a job swap that has upset many Russians fearing political and economic stagnation.
Alarm over their grip on power for years to come - Putin could rule until 2024 if he won another term in 2018 - prompted protests in which several hundred people were detained in the past few days. A rally on Sunday ended in clashes with police.
Most people have since been released but two of the more charismatic opposition leaders, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and left-wing leader Sergei Udaltsov, received 15-day sentences on Wednesday for disobeying police.
Both served short jail terms at the start of the protests last December and emerged with their reputations and positions strengthened in the protest movement.
Both leaders are 35. They say Putin was elected to the Kremlin on the back of electoral fraud, even though he won almost 64 percent of votes, and have been detained repeatedly since protests took off against the former KGB officer.
About 400 people wearing the white ribbon symbolizing their protest movement joined Communists at a rally after the military parade on Wednesday, but it ended without police intervention.
Putin and Medvedev face many challenges, including making the economy less reliant on energy exports and overhauling the armed forces to make them stronger.
Putin’s patriotic words rang true among many war veterans, many of them in their 80s, frail and weighed down with medals.
“We are remembering those who gave their lives in the war - millions ... You could draw a line with their bodies standing across all of Russia, 10,000 km,” said retired general Valery Tretyakov, 70.
Others were worried about the state of the army now.
“I gave 63 years of my life to the Soviet armed forces. I am a patriot of the armed forces but I don’t like what is happening now. I see destruction and collapse, and I am not sure about the reforms,” said Vitaly Burilichev, 88.
Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Michael Roddy