President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin put aside their political differences Tuesday to glorify World War II veterans and the Russian people whose sacrifices brought triumph over Nazi Germany and its “inhuman evil.”
Clinton chose the diplomatic course to show respect on this shared Victory Day holiday, ignoring occasional reminders that Russia is waging war on its own citizens in Chechnya and retains the ability to pose a military threat beyond its borders.
The President--arriving at the opening of a huge war memorial as Russian jets roared overhead in a ceremonial flyover--paid tribute to the World War II partnership of America and Russia “forged in battle, strengthened by sacrifice, cemented by blood.”
“The Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today,” Clinton told thousands of bemedaled Russian veterans joined by world leaders at the Poklonnaya Hill memorial, put up for the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory.
This was a day of pageantry and heroic rhetoric, a lull before what both sides predicted would be a stormy round of discussions on Russia’s brutal crackdown in Chechnya, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a proposed Russian sale of nuclear technology to Iran.
“There is a time and place for everything. Today was the time to talk about World War II and to show our respect for the Russian people,” chief State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said of Clinton’s deliberate silence on Chechnya and his disregard of the likely presence of Russian veterans of the current conflict at a parade in Red Square. “By the end of this meeting, he will have talked about Chechnya, in private and in public.”
Russia celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe by flexing its military muscle anew in a thunderous display of armor and aircraft--an hourlong procession near Poklonnaya unmatched in extravagance since victorious Soviet soldiers marched through Red Square after vanquishing Berlin.
Helicopter gunships, flying in formation, shadowed the military parade route along Kutuzovsky Prospekt, followed by 75 kinds of aircraft soaring low over the leafy treetops.
More than 10,000 soldiers, marines and paratroopers goose-stepped past Yeltsin’s reviewing stand, trailing hundreds of camouflage-painted tanks, nuclear-capable missiles and armored troop transports that Russians now refer to as “Chechnya taxis.”
In contrast, the Red Square parade included no such hardware--at the White House’s request; most of the 5,000 marchers were elderly veterans of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War. Many of the Russian celebrants were blind and infirm and supported each other as they made their way across the vast cobblestone expanse.
But among about 1,000 younger soldiers described as cadets, there were also reported to be two units that saw duty in Chechnya.
Clinton declined to attend the Poklonnaya parade in symbolic protest of the war burning at Russia’s southern fringe. But he could hardly ignore the boom of cannons heralding the start of the heavy weapons display; the smoke spewed by the vast procession of armor hadn’t even cleared when Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived for the memorial’s dedication.
The President focused his address on this nation’s war suffering and expressed the world’s gratitude for the former Soviet Union’s staggering sacrifice, saying: “I have come here today on behalf of all the people of the United States to express our deep gratitude for all that you gave and all that you lost to defeat the forces of fascism.”
Yeltsin, befitting the leader of a nation that bore the brunt of the Nazi onslaught, spoke in more graphic terms.
“Hitler’s delirious idea was to enslave our people, to flood Moscow and to herd its citizens into concentration camps,” he said during his 10-minute address in Red Square. “The villain’s ashes have been scattered in the wind, but Moscow and Russia are standing and will continue to stand over the centuries.”
Out of respect for the memory of the 27 million Soviet citizens killed in the war, Yeltsin said Europe “must not allow the poisonous seeds of Nazism to sprout anew.” He appealed to Russians to keep alive the memory of those who perished, urging that “hearts should not cool, memory should not be blunted.”
“Nothing will ever eclipse the great exploit of the people, of the soldier who has prevailed over inhuman evil,” Yeltsin concluded, declaring, “Glory to the victorious soldier who has saved the country and the whole world from fascism.”
Yeltsin, who moved slowly but steadily through a second long day of anniversary events, had been expected to speak at Poklonnaya but left the parade address to Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev and the memorial honors to Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.
Grachev insisted that Russia remains ready and able to defend itself against any new enemy that may threaten.
“The armed forces of Russia today are combat-capable, manageable, and they are ready to defend the state against any encroachment and to ensure the national security of the country,” he told parade viewers, whose government-issue civilian suits colored the stands with gray for male war veterans and teal for the women.
Clinton arrived in Moscow only two hours before his first appearance at 8 a.m. to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Although that visit has long been a ritual part of any head of state’s visit, the 50-plus major foreign delegations currently crowding Moscow compelled the Kremlin to limit the ceremonies to a high-profile handful.
The two presidents are expected to tackle the divisive political and economic issues today before Clinton addresses the Russian people in an evening speech at Moscow State University.
Meantime, in the Chechen capital, Grozny, the nocturnal warriors displayed low-intensity fireworks before dawn Tuesday, greeting Victory Day with red tracer bullets, white mortar flashes, yellowish artillery fire and green flares.
The sound of what has become nightly combat between Russian soldiers and separatist guerrillas in Chechnya was loud enough to drown out croaking frogs and disrupt sleep in the city--and to remind Yeltsin and his holiday guests in Moscow of the bloodshed amid their celebration of long-ago peace.
But all the shooting turned out to be relatively harmless by the standards of the 5-month-old conflict, which might have passed unnoticed Tuesday had it not been for V-E Day.
The relative calm enabled six companies of the large Russian force that invaded separatist-ruled Chechnya in December and now controls most of it to stage a modest parade at the Grozny airport, complete with a military band and an air show by a solo combat helicopter.
At the Chechen separatists’ mountain headquarters in Vedeno, hundreds of guerrillas were taking the two-day holiday off, playing soccer and holding an arm-wrestling competition. Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, their commander, ordered combat operations reduced to a minimum “out of respect for veterans” of World War II.
He was quick to add that this does not mean that the separatists are observing a cease-fire ordered by Yeltsin on April 28.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report from Grozny.
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Although most of the Continent commemorates the end of World War II in Europe on May 8, the date Germany formally capitulated, news of the Nazis’ May 7 surrender was slow to reach Moscow in 1945. As a result, the peoples of the former Soviet Union, and now Russia, traditionally mark V-E Day on May 9.