This Year’s Victory Day Message — Russian Power Is Back. Deal With It
The World War II 70th anniversary is more about the Kremlin’s chutzpah
by PAUL HUARD
To say that Russia’s Victory Day is a major national holiday is like saying Thanksgiving in America is a day when people serve turkey for dinner.
Victory Day is a big deal — a really big deal — that does more than celebrate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany and commemorate the nearly 25 million Soviet soldiers and civilians who died during World War II.
It’s become an affirmation of Russian nationalism, the importance of Russian identity and the necessity of Russia’s place in the constellation of “great power” nations.
The 70th anniversary on May 9 of the Russian triumph during the Великая Отечественная Война — the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II — will be no different.
In the West, however, this year’s celebration is causing particular anxiety as analysts consider what the world will see. Russia will broadcast the parade with all its fanfare, speeches and military hardware internationally.
For example, there’s neo-Cold War concern about new weapons on display, such as the T-14 Armata tank. There’s also curiosity about whether Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin will use the ceremony to unashamedly bash NATO and the United States.
But whatever happens, the Kremlin will want to send one message loud and clear — Russia with its military might is back after the long slumps of the 1990s and early 2000s.
“This year’s Victory Day is only tangentially about World War II,” Graeme Auton, a professor of government at the University of Redlands, told War Is Boring. “It is much more about the reaffirmation of Russia’s place in the world, and a reminder to the Russian people of the legitimacy and centrality of that place.”
“In that respect, the celebration is more focused on the domestic than on the international audience,” Auton, who is also a former NATO research fellow and arms control specialist with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, added.
Celebrated since 1946, День Победы — Victory Day — symbolizes what many Russians believe to be the country’s exceptional status arising from World War II. The Nazi-Soviet conflict alone was one of the most destructive wars in human history.
Russia even celebrates its Victory Day on a different date than the West’s Victory in Europe Day — otherwise known as VE Day.
Germany signed a surrender agreement in France with the Allied powers on May 7, 1945. But the Soviet Union wanted a separate peace with Nazi Germany because Stalin was irritated that a Soviet delegation with the authority to accept a surrender wasn’t present.
While the rest of the world celebrated VE Day on May 8, Nazi representatives and the Allies repeated the surrender in Berlin where supreme German military commander Wilhelm Keitel, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov and others signed the instrument of surrender.
It was May 9 in the Moscow time zone when the agreement took effect — hence the date for Victory Day.
The most notable part of the ceremonies is the impressive parade held in Red Square. Traditionally, the parade is three parts — a procession of the Russian army, a “military hardware demonstration” that showcases weapons systems new and old. Finally, there’s the “fly-by of the air forces.”
“It comes at a crucial juncture for the Putin government,” Auton said. “But it is also a reminder to the rest of the world that Russia has in modern times been a significant force in balancing power and shaping our civilization.”
More than 16,000 soldiers, 200 armored vehicles, dozens of missile launchers, and about 150 airplanes and helicopters will participate in the event.
However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the holiday faded in importance for a time. During the 1990s and early 2000s, some of the celebrations were even subdued — celebrating the end of World War II remained important, but maintaining Soviet-style pageantry was not.
That led to some remarkable guests. German chancellor Angela Merkel joined Putin as a guest during the 2010 celebration. In 2005, Putin had Pres. George W. Bush sit next to him to watch the parade.
Most impressively, U.S. and British forces marched in the 2010 procession, including a company of the U.S. Army’s 18th Infantry Regiment — something that would have been impossible during the Cold War. They were there to honor the “anti-Hitler coalition” of nations that fought the Nazis during World War II.
Not this year. Because of Russian aggression in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the U.S., Germany and many NATO countries are skipping the Victory Day celebrations. But that won’t keep the Kremlin from pulling out all the stops.
James Miller, executive editor of The Interpreter, an online magazine that presents English-language translations of Russian and Eastern European news sources, told War Is Boring that Putin emphasizes the eye-popping scope and splendor of Victory Day to stir up patriotism and intimidate Russia’s neighbors.
“Putin has also introduced a new ideological theme to the Victory Day events — that the West is ideologically corrupt, Nazis are rising again in Ukraine, and the Russian military is the last line of defense against resurgent fascism,” Miller said.
“Putin is hoping that the people who attend the event will miss the irony, since Putin is the one cracking down on minorities, outlawing free speech, and filling the media with state-controlled militaristic propaganda.”
Even if the propaganda offends the international community, Victory Day will reassure the Russian people that their greatness doesn’t depend on the opinions of foreign nations.
“Russia is going through a difficult time right now, beset by collapsing energy prices and Western sanctions arising from the Ukraine-Crimea crisis,” Auton said.
“Vladimir Putin wants to remind the Russian people that they have suffered much greater adversity in their past and through their collective determination they have emerged even stronger,” he added.
“It is also about Russia’s continuing confrontation with the West, a West that after World War II aligned itself with the former Axis powers by incorporating them into its anti-Russian alliance network while at the same time rearming them.”
That’s why Western observers should pay attention to who is on the guest list this year.
Representatives from China, Cuba, India, Mongolia, South Africa and Vietnam confirmed they will attend. So will North Korea’s official head of state, Kim Yong Nam. Despite earlier reports suggesting he will attend, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un pulled out of the event.
All of those nations are willing to offer some support to Russian positions, or they are least skeptical of a U.S.-dominated global order. The Russian Victory Day message might be one of fortitude and world greatness, but it also presents old World War II allies with an insurmountable quandary.
“How could we sit in Red Square watching a modern military parade applauding units and personnel that flagrantly violated international laws and treaties leading to Crimea’s illegal annexation and ongoing proxy aggression within eastern Ukraine?” retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack told War Is Boring.
Zwack, who served as the U.S. defense attaché in Russia — the senior American military official in the country — participated in past Victory Day celebrations.
“Furthermore, the upcoming parade will display nuclear-capable aircraft and ballistic missile launchers that come after destabilizing Russian utterances of possible employment this past year,” Zwack added.
In recent months, Putin and other Kremlin officials stated they were willing to use nuclear weapons if the West interfered in Russian actions such as the annexation of the Crimea.
Zwack says he’s afraid that the Russian people — particularly Russian youth — will be swept up in the “perceived successes of the current Russian military” without understanding the horrors of war their forebears experienced.
“How do we get past this deep-rooted psychological baggage stoked by an incendiary Russian media that purports the West with its military and liberal ideals as a mortal existential threat?” Zwack asked.
“We’ve got to get past this polarizing narrative, so that we can together with practical amity work on the many, pressing contemporary issues that we have in common today.”
The problem is the more confrontational and bellicose Putin is, the more popular he is. Russian opinion polls show his approval rating still in the high 80 percent range.
While it might be easy to dismiss Putin’s comments and the portrayal of Russian strength this Victory Day as posturing, keep in mind a recent analysis by Ukrainian journalist Sergey Grabovsky. All of this wouldn’t matter “if Russia were not an enormous state with nuclear weapons and a large land army.”