The May 9 Victory Day commemoration is the year’s most important official event in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia—a country-wide extravaganza, marked by massive military parades. The largest of these is always held on Red Square, in Moscow. This year, some 13,000 service personnel in gold-glittering uniforms, mimicking old Russian imperial or Stalinist postwar garments, goose-stepped down the Square, followed by displays of tanks, guns and different types of missiles, including land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as well as a fly-by of military aircraft. The parade included some of the newest weapons Putin has been boasting about recently, like the hypersonic air-launched Kinzhal missile (apparently a modified Iskander ballistic missile) attached to a modified supersonic MiG-31 interceptor, which provides this munition with an increased range of up to 2,000 kilometers and additional operational mobility. Ten MiG-31s modified to carry and fire a Kinzhal missile from a standoff position have been deployed for service in the Southern Military District (Militarynews.ru, May 5). Collectively, some 140,000 servicepersons and thousands of pieces of heavy military equipment were deployed for military parades all over Russia in cities and garrisons as well as abroad, in Armenia and Syria, with a parade on the tarmac of Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase, near Latakia (Militarynews.ru, May 9).
Speaking to the nation and the troops assembled on Red Square before the defile, Putin praised Russian (Soviet) World War II heroism and lambasted those nations “who chose the disgrace of capitulation, cynical opportunism or outright collaboration with the Nazis.” It is unclear why Putin or his speechwriters chose this moment to implicitly attack Hungary, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries that indeed were forced to capitulate during the war or, in some form or other, collaborated with the Nazis. Putin promised to resist attempts by dark forces to “rewrite history” and downplay Russia’s wartime sacrifices or great victories. He also talked about “new threats” of aggressive nationalism, intolerance and “professed exceptionalism”—apparently a barb aimed at the United States (Kremlin.ru, May 9). While Putin was speaking, at his side was the main foreign guest of honor—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to Moscow to attend the Victory Day celebrations and for urgent talks.
Iran and Israel seem to be drifting toward war, with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) accusing Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and pro-Iranian Shia militias in Syria of directly threatening the Jewish state. Tensions have further risen after President Donald Trump announced a US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal—a move condemned by Russia, China and the US’s European allies, but supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The IDF has been increasing the frequency and scope of its strikes into Syria, at allegedly Iranian and pro-Iranian targets. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been accusing Israel of aggression and of hitting Syrian government assets. The Russian military command, despite having established lines of communications (“de-confliction”) with the IDF in 2015, seems to be shifting to the side of al-Assad’s regime and its Iranian backers, with which the Russian forces in Syria have been closely cooperating. The Russia military, diplomatic and intelligence service establishment was never happy with Putin forming such a close alliance with Israel, which is seen as an unreliable American proxy that will inevitably choose Washington over Moscow. Additionally, individuals expounding anti-Semitic views have traditionally been plentiful inside Russia’s military/diplomatic/intelligence establishment (see EDM, April 26).
Netanyahu’s May 9 Victory Day visit to Moscow seems like a bold move to prevent Russian foreign policy in the Middle East from reverting back to its traditional anti-Israeli course. In particular, the visit likely sought to prevent a possible direct or proxy Russo-Israeli military clash—as has occurred before in this region, during the Cold War, when hundreds of IDF and Soviet military personnel were wounded or killed fighting each other in secretive confrontations that were not reported publicly at the time. Netanyahu met Putin for talks in the Kremlin to plead his case against Iran which, according to the Israeli prime minister, is plotting to destroy the Jewish people. Moreover, he stressed that his country has the right to fight back. At the same time, Netanyahu articulated how overwhelmed he was by the lavishness of the May 9 ceremony in Moscow and how the sacrifice of the Russian people and Red Army saved the Jewish people from extinction during the war with the Nazis (Kremlin.ru, May 9).
In the past, foreign dignitaries have regularly come to Moscow on Victory Day to pay their respects. But as a result of the ongoing East-West crisis, which was sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fighting in Donbas, Western guests of honor have seldom arrived on May 9 in more recent years. This year, the only guests were Netanyahu and the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic. Netanyahu pinned on the black-and-orange St. George’s ribbon—the traditional symbol of Russian military glory and, more recently, of aggressive nationalism and imperialism. In Ukraine, the wearing of the ribbon—which locally also became a symbol of pro-Russian separatism—is illegal. Vucic did not put it on. Netanyahu, together with Vucic, took part in other Victory Day ceremonies, including a walk through Red Square together with Putin as part of the so-called march of the “Immortal Regiment”—a state-sponsored mass defile of citizens in Moscow and other cities, carrying portraits of relatives who fought in the war. The march is intended to raise mass patriotic feelings. Putin carried a portrait of his father, who was wounded in the war. Netanyahu carried the image of a Jewish/Soviet war hero, Colonel Wolf Vilenski, who, after retiring from the service in 1972, applied to emigrate to Israel. He finally arrived there in 1983, after 11 years being a refusnik in the Soviet Union. Vilenski died in Israel, in 1992, and is not related to Netanyahu (TASS, May 9).
Netanyahu’s diplomacy apparently helped him outdo the Iranians. He told journalists Russia is unlikely to try to limit Israel’s military actions, and the IDF went into action almost as he spoke, hitting deep into Syria in response to an allegedly pro-Iranian forces’ missile attack on the Golan Heights. The IDF warned the Russians about the coming action. The Russian military command was clearly unhappy, but did not intervene (Militarynews.ru, May 10). A Kremlin spokesperson acknowledged that Netanyahu expressed his security concerns in talks with Putin, who did not condemn the massive IDF attack into Syria (Militarynews.ru, May 10). Perhaps, in the future, the ayatollahs will also consider donning St. George’s ribbons when talking to Russians.