Landmark second world war ceremony in Moscow poses dilemma for UK and US

Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Sergei Malgavko/TASS

Russian ceremonies in May to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war are posing an increasingly urgent dilemma for western capitals on whether to go – and who to send.

Discussions have been under way for some weeks between UK and US officials on a coordinated response. But the decision is complicated by the unpredictability of Donald Trump, and by Emmanuel Macron’s decision to accept Vladimir Putin’s invitation to the 9 May victory parade as part of his diplomatic overture to Moscow, without consulting Nato allies.

For the US, UK and other western powers, failure to attend would underline western divisions and run the risk of appearing to lack respect for the shared sacrifices of defeating Nazism.

On the other hand, attendance at the grandiose military parade planned in Moscow to mark the occasion could involve leaders acquiescing in continuing Russian military adventurism, and possibly witnessing the march-past of units involved in the bombardment of civilians in Syria, or the occupation of Crimea and military operations in the Donbas region.

“It is not appropriate for western leaders to honour the army in uniform that still occupies part of Ukraine, and paying tribute to some of the same units who are killing people in Idlib,” an eastern European diplomat said.

Related: Molotov-Ribbentrop: why is Moscow trying to justify Nazi pact?

Western attendance could also be used by Moscow to suggest acceptance of its revisionist version of second world war history, which airbrushes away Stalin and Hitler’s 1939 neutrality agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lasted until 1941 and by which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland.

According to the Russian embassy in Washington, the leaders of China, India, France, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, North Macedonia, Palestine, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Venezuela have confirmed their attendance.

“There are still several heads of states who have not yet responded to our invitation,” the Russian ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, said.

Poland has so far been left off Putin’s invitation list, as has Norway. Ukraine and Lithuania have already said they have no intention of going, even if they were invited. In Estonia, the defence minister has warned the president against accepting an invitation, though none has so far arrived, arguing attendance would mean “indirectly accepting Russian rhetoric”.

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel have all been asked but have yet to make a decision. Diplomats from their respective countries have been trying to coordinate a position, while privately expressing irritation with Macron for failing to consult allies before agreeing to go to Moscow.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, repeated Putin’s invitation to Trump when he visited Washington in December.

“He has expressed interest in taking part in the events if his schedule allows it,” Lavrov said.

Trump will be in the midst of his campaign for re-election by May. Going to Moscow would add weight to Democratic accusations that the president is under Putin’s sway. But those allegations have not resonated with the president’s core supporters. The trip would showcase Trump as a statesman, especially if he was offered pride of place among other world leaders in Moscow, and the prospect of a diplomatic or arms control deal he could bring back to Washington.

“There is a balance we need to find. On the 75th anniversary, it’s important that we mark and recognise the sacrifices that were made, and that we fought as allies, and there is a desire to do that,” a western diplomat said. “But the challenge is around concerns that Russia will choose to instrumentalise the event.”

“The more that we can coordinate and maintain an allied position the better,” the diplomat said.

Among the options being weighed as compromises in Washington and London are leaders’ participation in a wreath-laying in Moscow but avoiding the military parade, together with a joint statement distancing themselves from Putin’s military operations in Syria and Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rewriting of history.

Another option is to balance attendance in Moscow with participation in rival ceremonies being held in Ukraine on the previous day, 8 May.

The government in Kyiv is working hard to present the Ukrainian ceremonies as a more appropriate way of commemorating the suffering of the second world war, without the risk of endorsing Russian aggression.

“Ukraine is marking 8 May as a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation along with the whole democratic world,” a Ukrainian official said. “Five years ago on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of world war two, Ukraine rejected the Soviet (now Russian) style of honoring Stalin’s victory over Nazism.

“That’s why Ukraine is inviting foreign countries to attend commemorative events in Kyiv,” the official added. “Now we are working on all details; logistics and the agenda will be available sometime later. Taking into account the aforementioned, we hope that the US officials would participate in the commemorative events on 8 May in Kyiv.”

Kyiv is weighing an invitation to the US defence secretary, to reflect the importance of US military aid in the face of Russian encroachment.

Other countries are assessing how to balance participation in Kyiv with attendance in Moscow.

“It is also important to remember that other parts of the former Soviet Union fought in the war,” a western diplomat said. “It’s not just about Russia, and that should be recognised.”