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Putin remains defiant as ever 2 years into Russia's war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin gets off a Tu-160M strategic bomber after a flight in Kazan, Russia, on Thursday.
Dmitry Azarov
/
Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gets off a Tu-160M strategic bomber after a flight in Kazan, Russia, on Thursday.

MOSCOW — As the war in Ukraine enters its third year, Russian President Vladimir Putin is projecting confidence his country can both outlast Western support for Kyiv and thrive economically despite a continued ratcheting of sanctions.

The eve of the war anniversary coincided with Defenders of the Fatherland Day on Friday — a Soviet-era holiday, still observed by millions of Russians, with roots in the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany.

In a video address to the nation, Putin took the moment to once again draw false comparisons between the Soviet victory over fascist Germany and his current invasion of Ukraine.

"You are our true national heroes," said Putin in addressing troops fighting in Ukraine.

"We know that it is hard for you, and we will do everything possible for you to fulfill the tasks ahead of you."

A massive fireworks display engulfed the skies of Moscow later that evening.

The celebrations capped off a busy week for the Russian leader — one that saw him exude confidence about Russia's military and economic resilience as Ukraine has increasingly struggled on the battlefield.

One moment, Putin was flying in a new strategic nuclear capable bomber; the next, he was driving a Kamaz truck along newly paved roads; then he was basking before an assembled crowd of supporters who pleaded to shake his hand.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as they arrive to take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden on Defender of the Fatherland Day, in Moscow, Russia, on Friday.
/ Alexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
/
Alexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as they arrive to take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden on Defender of the Fatherland Day, in Moscow, Russia, on Friday.

The message intended for audiences couldn't have been clearer: Western efforts to hobble Russian progress — and Putin's authority — have failed.

Projecting confidence

A new exhibit in Moscow called simply "Rossiya" — or Russia — highlights this growing confidence.

Housed on the grounds of a Stalinist-era attraction park dedicated to achievements in industry and agriculture, Rossiya updates the concept to showcase the best of the Putin era — including tributes to the Sputnik V vaccine, hypersonic missiles, and newnuclear-powered icebreakers.

Another pavilion is dedicated to success in Russia's far-flung regions — the world's largest country in essence presented as a wonder cabinet of polar bears, talking robots, and details about local history and culture.

"The country has begun to develop in the right way. It's more beautiful, and more accessible than ever," says Galina Shebelkova, a pensioner from Siberia who traveled to Moscow for the exhibit. "And it's all thanks to our president."

The exhibit also includes exhibitions from the four "new" Ukrainian regions that Moscow claimed to have annexed in 2022 — despite international condemnation and lacking full control over the territory.

In the exhibit on occupied Donetsk, 22-year-old Anna Chochuia led visitors through a simulated coal mine that tells the story of her region's journey from "oppression" under Ukraine to its fight for independence, and later "reunification" with Russia.

The Donetsk tour also includes hologram tributes to separatist rebels killed in fighting and a 6-foot rose sculpture made from shrapnel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden on Defender of the Fatherland Day, in Moscow, Friday.
Alexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo / AP
/
AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden on Defender of the Fatherland Day, in Moscow, Friday.

"People often ask if we're happy we joined Russia," Chochuia explains. "And I tell them that when Vladimir Putin recognized Donetsk, everyone had goosebumps. We finally gained our freedom."

At a booth for Belgorod, a Russian region bordering Ukraine that has been under attack by Ukrainian forces throughout much of the year, some locals were more reticent about another year of war.

"We all hope for peace this year," said Margarita Khokhlova, who works in the local tourism industry. "I mean how much longer can it go on?"

Arteom Chistikov, a recent university graduate from Belgorod, blamed both Russia and Ukraine for violence that has no end in sight.

"First they hit us, and then we hit them ... or it's the other way around. But there's always a response," he said. "Honestly, we're all tired of it."

While the Kremlin insists the nation has rallied around the war effort, independent polls show half of all Russians would support negotiations aimed at ending the fighting.

Putin will decide how long the war continues

A woman lays flowers at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression to pay respect to Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.
Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A woman lays flowers at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression to pay respect to Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.

But there's little doubt that the decision on how long to continue the war rests with President Putin alone.

A slew of repressive laws have made criticism of the war essentially illegal — with 20,000 arrests since the start of the war, according to a local human rights group.

Leading government critics are opponents are either in exile, jail or worse.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led his Wagner Group of mercenaries in a rebellion against the Russian military leadership over perceived failures in Ukraine, died in a still-unexplained plane crash in August of last year.

Prigozhin's demise was followed by the arrest of other nationalist figures critical of Putin's failure to execute the war.

Meanwhile, the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic prison colony under mysterious circumstances earlier this month has only further solidified opponents of the invasion.

"Who else can so clearly express the feelings of those of us who don't agree with Putin or the war?" says Pavel Inzhutov, 25, at a makeshift monument to Navalny in Moscow.

"I'd always held out hope or a brighter future," he added. "But now that hope is gone."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charles Maynes