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Story Publication logo May 9, 2022

On Victory Day, Putin Paints Russia’s Brutal Invasion of Ukraine as a Response to the West

Ukraine refugees flee to Hungary

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In Moscow and Kyiv on Monday, two countries at war fought over the meaning of what used to be the shared holiday of Victory Day, when Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. But instead this year, the Kremlin likened Ukrainians to Nazis and Ukrainians compared Russian actions to Nazi war crimes. Nick Schifrin reports.

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Judy Woodruff: Today, in Moscow and Kyiv, two countries at war fought over the meaning of what used to be a shared holiday, Victory Day, when Russia, Ukraine, and all the former Soviet states celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany.

But, this year, the Kremlin compared Ukrainians to Nazis, and Ukrainians compared Russian actions to Nazi war crimes.

Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

Nick Schifrin: They filled Moscow's streets by the tens of thousands, Russians remembering family killed during World War II, mobilized by a leader leveraging an 80-year-old victory to justify today's war.

With pomp, circumstance, and a show of military might, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the Red Army's fight against the Nazis to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator): You are fighting for the motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II, so there is no place in the world for executioners, castigators, and Nazis.

Nick Schifrin: Putin did not escalate the war or declare victory. Instead, he once again inflated Western prewar support for Ukraine as his reason to invade.

Vladimir Putin (through translator): We saw how the military infrastructure was being developed, how hundreds of foreign advisers began to work. There were regular deliveries of the most modern weapons from NATO countries.

The danger grew every day. Russia has preemptively repulsed an aggression. It was a forced, timely, and the only correct decision.

Nick Schifrin: Ukraine's rebuttal uploaded online. On the street where Kyiv usually hosts its Independence Day parade, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walked past barricades and compared an unnamed Putin to Hitler.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator): Someone is fighting for the czar, the fuhrer, and we are fighting for our freedom, so that the victory of our ancestors was not in vain.

The one who is repeating the horrific crimes of Hitler's regime today, he is doomed, because he was cursed by millions of ancestors when he began to imitate their killer. And, therefore, he will lose everything. And, very soon, there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone will not have even one left. We won then. We will win now, too.

Narrator: The Soviet army turning the Nazi six-month assault into the most ghastly military disaster in German history.

Nick Schifrin: Ukraine and Russia shared sacrifices in World War II. Twenty million Soviets died. And, across Ukraine, Nazis committed war crimes.

But in Kharkiv's World War II memorial today, the only heartbeats allowed were recorded in the past and piped in by speaker. The memorial was closed by Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, whose father was a Soviet soldier.

Ihor Terekhov, Mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine (through translator): Ukraine was entirely occupied by Nazi Germany, and Ukraine was liberated with the help of our allies, the United States, Great Britain.

The whole world liberated us from the Nazis and fascists. And, today, history is repeating itself. The United States, Great Britain, they're all providing us with weapons.

President Joe Biden: Well, welcome, folks.

Today, in the U.S., President Biden signed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act. It borrows the name of U.S. support to allies during World War II and makes it easier to arm Ukraine.

President Joe Biden: With Putin's war once more bringing wanton destruction to Europe, and to reaffirm the enduring commitment to the future grounded in democracy, human rights, and peaceful resolution to disagreements, I'm now going to sign this bill.

Nick Schifrin: But at a European meeting in France today, President Emmanuel Macron ended Ukraine's hope to join the European Union quickly and said Russia's priorities needed to be considered.

Emmanuel Macron, French President (through translator): The terms of the discussion and negotiation will be established by Ukraine and Russia. It won't happen by ignoring or excluding one or the other.

Nick Schifrin: Back in Ukraine, Russia continues to bombard and try to storm Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant, the city's last holdout.

For two months, hundreds of civilians have been hiding underneath Azovstal with no light or fresh air and little food and water. In the last 10 days, the U.N. and ICRC have escorted three convoys of families out of Azovstal.

U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator Osnat Lubrani traveled with those convoys to the Ukrainian-held town Zaporizhzhia, where we sat down today.

The people who you have evacuated with, what are the conditions they have faced?

Osnat Lubrani, U.N. Resident Humanitarian Coordinator, Ukraine: People that have undergone trauma, living in conditions that's difficult to imagine in a bunker. They haven't seen the sky. They haven't — they had limited food and incessant shelling all the time.

So, bringing them out, the process of moving them was also not easy. There is presently, by the entities that are in control of these areas, a requirement to go through a screening process. We were present with them throughout that process, which was very lengthy and intensive. And, for people, particularly the ones from Azovstal, who have just come in, putting pressure on people that already have gone through a difficult time, and very scary, I think, for all of them.

I think that's where our presence with those vulnerable people that had just come out of a difficult situation was very important. And it was protection by presence, being there.

Nick Schifrin: We're talking about screening by Russian forces. What are the Russians making the people who are leaving Mariupol go through in that screening process?

Osnat Lubrani: I think there are a lot of probing questions. It's very lengthy and very comprehensive and very intense.

Nick Schifrin: Is it unfair?

Osnat Lubrani: It was putting people under duress, but there was no actual abuse or — to the extent that — that's why we were there. There was no ...

Nick Schifrin: To ensure there was no abuse.

Osnat Lubrani: Yes, exactly.

Nick Schifrin: What are the conditions that the people who remain in Mariupol face?

Osnat Lubrani: Right now, Mariupol is very much destroyed.

In terms of access to food and basic services, these are literally not there. I'm hoping that we can also be there for the people that are living in very, very dire conditions. There is Russian presence, but there is also the presence of other entities that are now sort of controlling people's daily lives.

In this regard, I want to say that the U.N. does have a presence for many years in Donetsk and Luhansk. We have, on the basis of humanitarian principles, been able to engage with all of these entities to — on access, on bring humanitarian aid. So, I hope that those same arrangements can be worked out.

Nick Schifrin: It sounds like you're making a pitch to the pro-Russian separatists, who you have been dealing with for many years in the self-declared independent republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, who are now in Mariupol. The pitch is that you can work with them inside Mariupol.

Osnat Lubrani: I think, yes, that's the pitch.

Nick Schifrin: As part of the evacuation efforts, have families from Mariupol been separated?

Osnat Lubrani: People have ended up in different situation. And … (SIREN BLARING)

Nick Schifrin: Air raid sirens in the distance.

Osnat Lubrani: Air raid sirens, yes.

There have been instances of family separation. There were several instances where people were detained because they were either in — under investigation or detained because they were considered involved, as, you know, combatant.

Nick Schifrin: Meaning former soldiers…

Osnat Lubrani: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: … or former police, yes?

Osnat Lubrani: Yes.

And that involved separation of those people from family members, sometimes children.

Nick Schifrin: From their children, yes.

Osnat Lubrani: Sometimes children and siblings, but in all of those instances, we will be following up.

Nick Schifrin: Osnat Lubrani, thank you very much.

Osnat Lubrani: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: And a note: Our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.


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