Combat ships lined the Neva River in St. Petersburg and crowded the harbor of the nearby Kronstadt naval base last Sunday (July 25) for the parade marking the 325th anniversary of Russia’s navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF). It was only the sixth such Navy Day spectacle to date. In 2017, President Vladimir Putin decided that the annual May 9 Victory Day parade in Red Square in Moscow was not enough to convincingly demonstrate the full might of the Russian Armed Forces. Since then, the pomp around the mid-summer naval showcase has continued to rise, and the star of the “largest ever” parade this year was the Borei-A-class strategic submarine Knyaz Vladimir, accompanied by two more nuclear submarines from the Northern Fleet; a pair of Iranian warships featured among foreign guests (Fontanka, July 22). The impeccable spit and polish had to impress only one spectator—President Putin—because the sharp and deadly rise of the COVID-19 pandemic across Russia forced the city authorities in St. Petersburg to impose a ban on public gatherings (Novaya Gazeta, July 22).
A mini-parade was also staged at the Russian naval facility in Tartus, Syria, involving the frigate and the submarine that had partaken in exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean last month, timed for the combat deployment of the United Kingdom’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to this theater (Interfax, June 25). Parading its aging flagship cruiser Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet sought to erase the memory of the attempted intercept of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender near its Sevastopol base in Crimea, when firing a few futile shots did nothing to dissuade the British from exercising their legal right of innocent passage (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, July 8; see EDM, June 24, 28).
Fireworks usually accompanying these celebrations were canceled, but there was an outburst of publications on the modernization of the Russian VMF, with only small-print mentions of ongoing delays and setbacks (Izvestia, July 19). The Kremlin-linked media highlighted tests of the Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile, advertised by Putin three years ago, and reported it was ready for mass production (Gazeta.ru, July 19). And while the naval theme has been duly prevalent, news about other prospective weapon systems, such as the S-500 surface-to-air missile, also keeps coming (RBC, July 20). The MAKS-2021 airshow in Moscow last week gathered large crowds, encouraged by the announcement that the coronavirus outbreak in the capital had peaked (EDM, July 22). The sensation surrounding the single-engine Checkmate “fifth-generation” tactical fighter, however, evaporated as soon as it became clear that the presented prototype is nowhere near the stage of initial testing (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 22). Putin, nevertheless, has given the jet an approving nod while savoring his habitual ice-cream, served with every precautionary measure (Kommersant, July 21).
Yet exaggerated acclamations of extra-modern weapon systems cannot quite camouflage the country’s growing technological backwardness, particularly in space exploration, where Russia used to be a leader in launching heavy missiles and bold ideas (Forbes.ru, July 21; see EDM, July 15). Russian commentators can be smartly skeptical about the space race between Western billionaires, but they cannot fail to see that China is overtaking Russia in designing new-generation space vehicles (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21). After long delays, the multipurpose laboratory module Nauka was launched last week from the Baikonur cosmodrome, but its docking to the International Space Station is complicated by the failure of the main engines in the propulsion system (Nplus1.ru, July 23).
Discussion of such fiascos is resolutely curtailed in the mainstream media, so that, for instance, squabbles in the top management of the United Shipbuilding Corporation, which affect many much-touted national projects, receive only scant mention (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, July 22). What makes critical coverage all but impossible is new legislation that effectively classifies the distribution of information on the real status of Russia’s military as detrimental to national security (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 20). The list of so-called “foreign agents” was expanded recently to include the online outlet The Insider and its team of investigative journalists (Meduza, July 23). This “punishment” was quite probably administered for one of its publications in early July exposing the low efficacy of the Russian EpiVacCorona vaccine (The Insider, July 9).
For many Russians, such information is far more relevant than the advertising of “stealth” fighters and frigates, since the new wave of the pandemic is spreading even among fully vaccinated individuals and setting new mortality records (RBC, July 24). Celebrations of Russian naval might were further spoiled by the spread of forest fires not only in the heatwave-stricken Yakutia but also in Karelia, adjacent to St. Petersburg (Novaya Gazeta, July 24). August, regularly associated with natural disasters in Russia, has not yet arrived, but heavy rains have already caused a collapse of a bridge on the Trans-Siberian Railway, interrupting most traffic to the Far East (Gazeta.ru, July 23). The government remains stingy with social support measures, and this renders the apparently generous investments in military modernization increasingly unpopular (Rosbalt, July 22). The public mood is further depressed by rising consumer prices, impelling the Central Bank to up its key rate by a full point to 7.5 percent last week (Moscow Times, July 23).
Nonetheless, Putin has publicly retained his focus on grand geopolitical posturing, apparently under the impression that simply giving an order to rebuild the bridge in Siberia in exactly 2.5 days means the problem is solved (Izvestia, July 23). He visibly enjoyed every moment of presiding over the Navy Day parade, and the absence of crowds seemingly did not diminish the exquisite satisfaction of performing the role of commander-in-chief. This vanity is actually far from innocent and feeds into the belief that military power is the prime and most impactful instrument of policy.
Since massing troops on the borders of Ukraine this spring, Moscow has shown certain restraint in wielding this instrument and refrained from interfering with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Steadfast Defender exercises in Germany and Romania in May–June or Sea Breeze 2021 exercises in the Black Sea in July. And yet this forbearance does not signify a shift toward a “stable and predictable” pattern of behavior. The accumulation of domestic discontent compels Putin’s siloviki (security services) to escalate repressions at home, following the example of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who asserts that the West is waging a real and not merely “hybrid” war against Belarus (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 20). This discourse is gaining momentum and generates perceptions of an inevitable employment of military means in the evolving confrontation. Sunday’s Navy Day parade has given Putin an extra boost of confidence in possessing the whole range of these ready-to-use means, and the top brass does not want to be accused of failing him.