Vladimir Putin compared German tanks deployed in Ukraine to the Nazis sweeping across eastern Europe as he addressed Russia in a symbolic speech on the anniversary of the end of the bitter battle for Stalingrad.
The Russian president flew to Volgograd, which was renamed Stalingrad for the day, to take part in memorial events marking 80 years since the end of the devastating siege that helped to turn the tide of war in Russia’s favour against Adolf Hitler’s army.
Mr Putin, who has adopted an almost manic reverence of World War Two, spent more than half of the speech comparing the Soviet Union’s struggle with Nazism to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that will soon enter its second year.
The Russian president, who has portrayed the invasion as “liberation” of the Ukrainian people from Western influence, proclaimed that a new “Nazi-like” ideology in Europe is “creating direct threats to our country’s security”.
“Once again, we’re having to resist an aggression of the collective West,” he told the memorial gathering after laying a wreath.
“It’s impossible to believe but it’s true: once again, we’re being threatened with German tanks.”
In his two decades of power, Mr Putin, a German-speaking former intelligence agent stationed in East Germany, had built enviable relations with Berlin, making it Russia’s key trading partner.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, prompted major soul-searching among the German leadership who in the past faced criticism of turning a blind eye to Russia’s growing authoritarianism.
Mr Putin, who previously explicitly threatened the West with Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal, on Thursday made a veiled threat about using atomic bombs in Ukraine.
“Those who are hoping to defeat Russia on the battlefield probably do not fully understand that a modern war against Russia will be very different for them this time,” he said.
“We’re not sending our tanks to their borders but we do have something to respond, and it won’t be just armoured vehicles. Everyone should be aware of that.”
The Russian president made the remarks shortly after laying flowers at the war memorial in the city centre, with a giant figure representing the Motherland with a sword in her hand on top of the hill.
Streets in central Volgograd were blocked on Thursday, and residents and visitors were not allowed anywhere near the sprawling memorial complex that Mr Putin visited.
In the city, local authorities earlier on Thursday staged a military parade on the central street, involving World War Two-era vehicles. Some participants were dressed in period costumes including police officers wearing the uniform of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s brutal secret police.
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