Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels today (9 May) commemorated the former Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany by parading tanks and other heavy weapons banned under a fragile truce.
The eastern insurgents’ de facto capital of Donetsk saw more than 10,000 people swarm along the main street of the shattered industrial hub to remember the victims of what Russia calls The Great Patriotic War.
The industrial hub – home to nearly one million before the revolt against the pro-Western leadership in Kiev erupted two years ago – was awash in the orange and black ribbons adopted as a symbol of patriotism in Russia.
“I promise that we will win. We will persevere and win,” Donetsk separatist chief Aleksander Zakharchenko declared after modern tanks and Russian-made Grad multiple-rocket launcher systems rumbled past a seated group of decorated war veterans.
One Katyusha rocket launcher used during World War II was engraved with a sign reading “For Stalin” – the Soviet dictator who has gained hero status among some insurgents and whose portraits are increasingly visible in Russia itself.
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) May 9, 2016
Donetsk runs along the 30-kilometre-wide buffer zone that splits the two sides’ forces and was meant to have been free of large weapons under a repeatedly-broken peace agreement signed in February 2015.
Russia denies backing the militias but often refers to Ukrainian leaders who toppled the former Soviet republic’s pro-Moscow president in February 2014 as “fascists” who staged an illegal coup.
That month’s pro-EU revolution was followed several weeks later by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the April 2014 outbreak of a conflict that has claimed more than 9,300 lives and tattered Moscow’s relations with the West.
Germany and France are spearheading efforts to end the fighting by creating conditions for separatist elections that could grant the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk regions limited autonomy within a unified Ukraine.
But Ukraine insists that no such vote can be held until it regains portions of its eastern border with Russia that are now under rebel control and allegedly being used to smuggle in new supplies of weapons and forces into the war zone.
Moscow itself has tried to distance itself from the conflict by insisting that peace terms should be arranged between Kiev and the rebels themselves.
Some participants in the rally said they felt safer thanks to the insurgents’ show of force.
“For Donetsk, this is a great, holy day,” said a 74-year-old man who agreed to identify himself only as Nikolai.
“I feel that these guys will be able to protect my homeland,” he told AFP.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) warned ahead of the parade that a display of military equipment would violate the 2015 truce agreement and pose a “threat to people”.