MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin told Russians on Saturday they are invincible when they stand together as he presided over celebrations of victory in World War Two that were slimmed down because of the coronavirus outbreak.
His speech, beamed to the nation, sent a message of unity as the Kremlin tries to contain the coronavirus - and Putin tries to keep his ratings high - after Russia passed Germany and France to register the fifth-highest number of cases globally.
Victory Day, which marks the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, is one of Russia’s most revered public events and provides Putin with a platform to promote the patriotism that is a cornerstone of his popular support.
But the coronavirus outbreak forced him to postpone the main highlight, a huge annual parade on Moscow’s Red Square that showcases Moscow’s most sophisticated military hardware.
In his first public appearance for weeks, a sombre-looking Putin settled for a more low-key remembrance ceremony, but made clear he still planned to hold the usual parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory when the time was right.
“Our veterans fought for life and against death, and we will always try to live up to their spirit of unanimity and resilience,” Putin said after laying a bouquet of red roses at the Eternal Flame war memorial near the Kremlin.
“We are united by our shared memory, hopes and aspirations, as well as a sense of shared responsibility for the present and the future. We know and strongly believe that when we stand together, we are invincible.”
Guards from the Kremlin Regiment marched past after Putin, who was clad in a black rain coat, had spoken and a military band played the Russian national anthem.
Overhead, 75 military planes and helicopters, including advanced Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters, flew over central Moscow despite cloudy skies, with one group of jets leaving a trail in the sky in the colours of the Russian flag.
In the absence of the usual ground parade, state television broadcast a replay of last year’s Red Square event.
Similar fly-pasts were held in other Russian cities and fireworks were let off across the country once darkness fell.
Putin, 67, has in previous years basked in national pride, watching Russian tanks rumble across the square with world leaders by his side. But a recent poll gave him his lowest approval rating in more than two decades, albeit a still high 59%, and Russia’s economy is slipping into a deep downturn.
The coronavirus forced him to postpone a nationwide vote that was planned for last month and which he hoped would endorse constitutional changes allowing him to extend his rule until 2036. That vote is now expected to be held later this year.
Moscow and other regions have observed lockdowns since late March to try to slow the novel coronavirus, which has infected almost 200,000 Russians so far and caused more than 1,800 deaths.
Putin has accused Russia’s detractors of diminishing the Soviet war effort, and on Friday he warned post-Soviet leaders against what he said were attempts to rewrite the history of World War Two.
On the eve of the anniversary, Putin sent congratulatory letters to U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, suggesting the need to rekindle their nations’ cooperation during World War Two to solve today’s problems.
Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alex Richardson