On May 5 a dress rehearsal for the military parade to be held on Red Square on May 9 paralyzed traffic for many hours in central Moscow, as tanks and missile launchers moved through the city. This was a full dress rehearsal with up to 200 vehicles and 8,000 soldiers taking part. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was there to do his part by reviewing the troops, standing upright in a moving open Soviet-made limo. Only the top leaders of Russia, former President Vladimir Putin and then still president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, were absent.
On May 9 the actual parade will again push civilian traffic off the streets for half a day, but that will be on Victory Day, a state holiday commemorating the end of World War II. The Monday rehearsal paralyzed downtown traffic in Moscow during business hours on a working day. The government-controlled media reported that the populace was completely happy to see the rehearsal of the display of Russian military might. “During the rehearsal for the parade, a crowd of spectators cheered the appearance of formidable T-90 main battle tanks, Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems, S-300 air defense systems, Iskander-M tactical missile systems and Topol-M ballistic missile systems” (RIA-Novosti, May 5). Other reports, however, say that motorists were not at all happy to be stuck in traffic jams for many hours (Kommersant, May 6).
It is clear that this display of military might is intended primarily to please only one person, the supreme leader Putin, who personally ordered the resumption of full-scale, Soviet-style military parades with the display of tanks and other military hardware. The last Soviet military parade was in November 1990. In 1995 parades on Red Square resumed but without the hardware (see EDM, January 17).
At a meeting with Cabinet and top Kremlin administration officials, a smiling Putin announced, “For the first time in many years, military hardware will be involved in the parade. This is not saber-rattling. We threaten no one and do not intend to do so. We have everything we need. This is a simple display of our growing defense capability, the fact that we are now able to protect our citizens, our country and our riches, which we have in great quantity” (RIA-Novosti, May 5). The pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia printed full-page reports in two issues about the quality of the weapons on display, which matched anything the West could produce. “Much has been said about the possible inconveniences that the parade may cause, but the Russian military has indeed something to show off and we all have something to be proud of” (Izvestia, May 5, 6).
The picture is, in fact, not that rosy. The combat equipment that was moved through Red Square is old Soviet stock produced or designed in the 1980s. The government news agency RIA-Novosti was wrong in reporting that the new Topol-M (SS-27) mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles rolled through Moscow on Monday. The SS-27 carrier vehicle has 16 wheels, while the older Topol SS-25 ICBM has 14. The 14-wheel SS-25 carriers can clearly be seen in television footage of the May 5 rehearsal.
The SS-25 ICBMs were mass-produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1995 the deployment of SS-25s in Russia reached its peak with some 360 ICBMs in service. Now the SS-25 is no longer produced, and the missiles that have served their lifespan are currently being withdrawn and scrapped, their ICBM units disbanded. By 2015 all SS-25s will be retired.
The SS-25 Topols that rolled through Moscow presumably did not have real rockets on board, only empty containers mounted on mobile carriers. To bring a 45-ton solid fuel ICBM into central Moscow to the Kremlin would surely be an intolerable security risk, and the more than 100-ton weight of the carrier and ICBM could hardly be taken through inner-city streets. Since the SS-25 is no longer produced, the empty carriers, after showing off Russia’s finest weapons, will most likely go directly from Red Square to the scrap yard.
The bulk of Russia’s military holdings are vintage weapons of the 1970s, 1960s and 1950s. The weapons that Putin and Medvedev will proudly observe from the stand in front of Vladimir Lenin’s tomb in Red Square on May 9 are indeed some of the best and newest the military has, but they are nevertheless out of date. Izvestia boasts that the S-300PMU-2 Favorit antiaircraft missile system that will be on Red Square is better than anything the US has or may produce in the future. The Favorit is a modification of the Soviet S-300P. In 1997 at an air show in Moscow, I was allowed to get inside a PMU-2 command module, where I saw obsolete computers with monochrome electronic tubes instead of displays and no hard discs. I asked the main designer of the S-300 PMU-2, Boris Bunkin, why such obsolete weapons were still made. Bunkin replied that the Russian electronics industry couldn’t make anything more up-to-date. Officers told me that the S-300 computer often has glitches, and it takes hours to reboot it using rolls of magnetic tape.
The weapon show this May on Red Square would have been true defense news in the 1980s, when some of these “new” weapons actually appeared at Soviet military parades. Today’s military parade, however, only exhibits the backwardness of Russia’s military. Whether it is or is not saber rattling is immaterial, the saber is completely rusty anyway.