The Russian leader promised victory on a trip to Volgograd, where a new bust to Stalin has been unveiled.
President Putin vowed that Russia would emerge victorious in Ukraine while hinting that Moscow could use nuclear weapons and comparing the delivery of German tanks to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
“It’s unbelievable but true,” Putin said. “We are once again being threatened by German Leopard tanks with crosses on them. And again they are going to fight Russia on Ukrainian soil through the last followers of Hitler.
“Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country.”
The Russian leader was speaking during a visit to Volgograd to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi forces in the city, which was known as Stalingrad until 1961. The Kremlin has falsely claimed that Ukraine is ruled by a neo-Nazi government.
“Those who are counting on achieving victory over Russia on the battlefield do not understand that a modern war with Russia for them will be completely different,” Putin told an audience of army officers and pro-Kremlin activists. “We have something to respond with, and it won’t be limited to the use of armoured vehicles. Everyone must understand this.”
Asked to clarify Putin’s comments, the Kremlin said that Russia would “use its existing [military] potential more fully in order to respond” to the supply of western weapons to Ukraine. Germany’s Leopard tanks were not developed until after the Second World War.
Russian officials have warned on a number of occasions that the supply of western weapons, including American, British and German combat tanks, risks sparking a nuclear conflict. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelensky, told The Times at the weekend that western countries should ignore Putin’s nuclear threats.
Moscow has often sought to draw parallels between Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the Second World War. Critics have noted that the pro-invasion Z symbol was once used by Nazi forces that tried to conquer the Soviet Union.
Ukraine fears that Russia is preparing for a new attempt to seize Kyiv to coincide with the first anniversary of the war. “We think that they will try something around February 24,” Oleksiy Reznikov, the defence minister, told French television. Officials in Kyiv believe that Russia has deployed about half a million troops, far more than the 300,000 that Moscow says it has mobilised.
Zelensky hosted Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in Kyiv before a meeting on Friday between his government and the EU’s most senior officials.
She is expected to warn Ukraine that membership of the EU remains a long way off; Kyiv hopes to join by 2025.
Before his speech Putin visited the vast Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex to Soviet soldiers who died during the battle for Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of the Second World War. He laid flowers opposite a huge Soviet statue of a woman with a giant sword that is called the Motherland Calls, as well as inside the memorial complex.
More than a million Soviet soldiers were killed in the 1942-42 battle for Stalingrad, which ended with crushing defeat for Nazi Germany. The city was reduced to rubble but rebuilt after the war.
Putin’s visit to Volgograd came after officials unveiled a bust to Joseph Stalin in the centre of the city. It stands about 150 metres from a monument to victims of political repression that was built after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The bust is flanked by those of the Soviet commanders Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilyevsky. The opening ceremony was attended by members of the Young Army, a pro-Kremlin youth movement. Soldiers laid red carnations and saluted.
The southern Russian city bore Stalin’s name between 1925 and 1961, when it was changed to Volgograd, eight years after his death. However, it officially reverted to its previous name of Stalingrad for the 8oth anniversary period. Street signs were changed and officials referred to Stalingrad.
At a parade, modern and Second World War-era tanks and armoured vehicles decorated with the pro-war Z and V symbols rolled through the centre of the city, while fighter planes flew above. Police officers who took part in the parade wore the uniforms of the NKVD, the feared Stalin-era Soviet police who carried out countless summary executions of “enemies of the people.”
Once a near-taboo figure, Stalin’s reputation has been rehabilitated since Putin came to power 23 years ago. Officials have urged Russians to focus on Stalin’s wartime leadership rather than the deaths of millions of people in labour camps during his bloody 29-year reign.
Russian nationalists have urged the Kremlin to permanently rename Volgograd as Stalingrad, but a significant majority of locals are against the idea. Only 26 per cent are in favour, while 67 per cent are against the idea, according to a survey released by Vtsiom, the state pollster, this week.
Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst, said the poll proved that talk of a new cult of Stalin was exaggerated. He also suggested that it had been released by Kremlin officials who were eager to prevent Russia from “running down a road that leads to hell”.
The authorities draped banners over derelict buildings on the road that Putin used to drive into Volgograd while stray dogs were rounded up, locals said. Internet coverage was suspended in the centre of the city as an apparent security measure.
Andrei Bocharov, the regional governor, had not been seen in public for ten days before Putin’s visit. It is thought he had been ordered to isolate as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to protect Putin from coronavirus.