By Timothy Heritage and Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow's Red Square with military generals at his side, said he would promote Russia's might on the world stage in a patriotic speech on Wednesday glorifying the Soviet victory over Germany in World War Two.
Two days after being sworn in for a six-year term that has drawn protests against his return to the Kremlin, Putin used the address to troops and war veterans at the annual military parade on Red Square to reinforce appeals for national unity.
Putin faces a battle to reassert himself after the biggest protests since he rose to power in 2000 and the detention of hundreds of protesters this week to keep a lid on dissent.
"Russia consistently follows a policy of strengthening global security and we have a great moral right to stand up determinedly for our positions because our country suffered the blow of Nazism," Putin said on a podium flanked by military chiefs bristling with medals under the Kremlin's red walls.
He did not refer to any enemy other than evoking the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 at a great human cost, including millions of Soviet victims, at a parade in which goose-stepping troops, tanks and trucks carrying missiles filed past him.
"Barbarians were plotting to destroy whole nations," he said. "The inevitable happened - responsibility and common resolve prevailed over evil.
Putin, 59, has often used tough statements on foreign policy to rally people and resorted to anti-American rhetoric in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election. The tactic was also used by Soviet leaders, and featured prominently on national holidays such as Victory in Europe day.
During the election campaign, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of stirring the protests against his 12-year rule by encouraging "mercenary" Kremlin foes.
A Russian general also warned last week that Moscow could carry out pre-emptive strikes on future NATO missile defense installations. NATO called such threats "unjustified" and said the system posed no threat to Russia's security.
Putin has said he is ready to go a long way to develop ties with the United States, Moscow's former Cold War enemy and its fellow veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, but has made clear it must be on equal terms with Washington.
Russia has already reasserted itself on several fronts, opposing Western-promoted sanctions aimed at Moscow's long-standing allies Syria and Iran. It has emerged as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main foreign supporter in the conflict there, a stand that has created tension with Western powers.
OPPOSITION LEADERS HELD IN DETENTION
Putin was flanked by former president Dmitry Medvedev on Red Square, one day after the lower house of parliament approved his ally as prime minister, completing a job swap that has upset many Russians.
Opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny were among several hundred people detained in the past few days, including more than 400 after clashes with police at a rally on Sunday. Both remained in police detention on Wednesday.
Udaltsov said through a lawyer that he had started a hunger strike in protest at his treatment.
Both leaders say Putin was elected to the Kremlin on the back of electoral fraud, even though he won almost 64 percent of votes, and have been detained repeatedly since protests took off against the former KGB officer last December.
Putin and Medvedev also face rivalries which they need to quell in their own ranks, calls for liberal political reforms and demands to reduce Russia's heavy dependence on the global price of gas and oil, its main export commodities.
They have also pledged to overhaul the armed forces to make them a force to be reckoned with.
Putin's patriotic words rang true among many war veterans, many of them now in their 80s and weighed down with medals.
"Today we are paying our dues to those who gave us victory. We are remembering those who gave their lives in the war - millions ... You could draw a line with their bodies standing across all of Russia, 10,000 kilometers," said retired general Valery Tretyakov, 70.
But some were concerned about the state of the armed forces, reflecting the views of some their generals.
"I gave 63 years of my life to the Soviet armed forces. I am a patriot of the armed forces but I don't like what is happening now. I see destruction and collapse, and I am not sure about the reforms," said Vitaly Burilichev, 88.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Angus MacSwan)