The Victory Day parade on the Red Square in Moscow last Saturday (May 9) was a glorious and perfectly smooth affair, which duly filled the hearts of millions of Russians with habitual pride for the military might of the country. President Vladimir Putin basked in the role of Commander-in-Chief but was unusually soft in his address, mentioning only briefly the “attempts at building a unipolar world.” He expressed gratitude to the United Kingdom, France and the United States for their contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany and pointed to the historical meeting of the Soviet and US allied troops on the Elbe (Newsru.com, May 9). Nevertheless, the tense militaristic atmosphere of the celebration was quite different from ten years ago, when Putin warmly greeted the veterans while standing together with US President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
This time, the guests of honor were China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. And as the military hardware continued to process past them, Putin eagerly pointed out the new S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missiles, which are due to be delivered to China according to a major arms export deal (Carnegie.ru, April 19). Xi’s visit to Moscow was not only ceremonial but also business-political, with the affirmation of a new level of strategic partnership by new investment projects (Kommersant, May 8). It is remarkable that none of these projects deals with energy, which used to be the key issue in high-level talks. Gazprom is desperate to increase its contracted export volumes by opening the “Eastern corridor” to China. But Beijing shows scant interest in such a costly proposition and agreed to sign only yet another “memorandum of understanding” (Vedomosti, May 8). Insightful Russian economist Sergei Aleksashenko argues that the Russian government implores Chinese partners to put new money into cooperation. But the new credit line of $1 billion that Sberbank was able to secure from China is, according to Aleksashenko, entirely insignificant and is not worth the humiliation of begging (Moscow Echo, May 8).
Putin had clearly wanted more than Chinese credits for building a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan from the occasion and sought to turn it into a demonstration of new prospects opened by Russia’s turn to the East. The plan for boosting Moscow’s profile in the Asia-Pacific was undermined, however, by North Korea’s maverick leader Kim Jong-un, who not only failed to arrive on Putin’s calling but chose the day to stage a test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (Rbc.ru, May 9).
The too-close-for-comfort embrace with China (which is to be reciprocated by Putin’s visit to Beijing where celebrations of the victory over Japan will be staged in September) could not compensate for the absence of key Western leaders at the Moscow parade (Rbc.ru, May 10). It was not even possible for Putin to pretend that they showed disrespect for Russia’s heroic struggle because German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to the Volgograd memorial for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and prepared ground for Chancellor Angela Merkel to come to Moscow on Sunday for a quiet moment at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—and for quiet talks with Putin (Kommersant, May 8). Germany has thus managed to take the moral high ground and to remind Russia, without undue fanfare, that Europe has achieved reconciliation and stands together against the threat of aggressive authoritarianism.
Europe’s deep aversion to brandishing military force is foreign to Putin’s Russia, where the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II is turned into a promotion of state militarism, which is increasingly decorated with portraits of Joseph Stalin (Moscow Echo, May 8). The Red Square premiere of a new T-14 main battle tank and T-15 heavy infantry fighting vehicle on the Armata platform was staged with such triumphalism that the deepening crisis of Russia’s economy appeared miraculously overcome (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 8). The aging military-industrial complex in fact constitutes a major part of this crisis, and the catastrophe with the space transport vehicle “Progress,” which burned up over the Pacific Ocean on the eve of festivities after failing to connect with the International Space Station, delivered a reminder of this degradation (Meduza, May 8). This year’s May 9 parade was grander than any staged in the Soviet Union, but it could provide Russia only an illusion of grandeur, while in reality the country continues to lag in the fast-moving world.
This production of simulacra is perhaps a defining feature of Putin’s regime, which excels at satisfying public demand for asserting Russia’s “greatness” with high-volume propaganda and militaristic shows (Forbes.ru, May 8). In this self-glorification, the celebration of the great old victory blends together with the triumphalism over the “reunification” with Crimea and with gloating about the “victories” in eastern Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 30). Putin was careful not to mention the Ukraine crisis even by one word; but Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile launchers that paraded in the Red Square (without being announced, as other weapons systems were) served as a reminder about the terrible reality of this far-from-frozen conflict (Novaya Gazeta, May 5). The “hybrid” character of the war in Ukraine makes it possible to wrap Russia’s military intervention into all sorts of denials, but its human costs keep mounting and the pattern of combining local clashes with international talks involves extremely high security risks (Polit.ru, May 7). The “neither here nor there” situation grants the parties to the conflict many opportunities and incentives for manipulating the ceasefire, but it also makes the pause in hostilities rather unnatural.
The extraordinary pomp around the celebration of the V-Day made it possible for Putin to sustain the momentum of mobilization created by last year’s Crimean anschluss. Now that the fanfare and fireworks have fallen silent, this momentum may dissipate—and Putin, who has made himself into the central figure in militarized festivities, can ill afford such a slackening of “patriotic” fervor. The heavy emphasis on the decisive and glorious victory won by the “grandfathers” sits poorly with the evasive and ambivalent discourse on the on-going war with “brotherly” Ukraine. For the aggressively “patriotic” propaganda, it is hard to explain the point of demonstrating all the tanks and missiles, if there is no intention to use them for achieving another great victory for Russia. Reckoning with reality is not an option for Putin, but the stock of other useful “national projects” is quite exhausted.