Russia Celebrates Its Newly Revived Old-Fashioned Militarism

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 61

Rehearsal for May 9, 2017, Victory Day Parade in Moscow (Source: EBL News)

On May 9, columns of tanks will roll through the streets of Moscow, followed by S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Arctic camouflage and cyclopean Topol-M inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), to parade proudly on Red Square. Similar parades—minus the Topols—will take place across the country, from Vladivostok to illegally annexed Sevastopol, where crowds will additionally rejoice over the third anniversary of “re-joining” Russia. In this pompous demonstration of military might, there is little left of the memory of the tragic, devastating war against Nazi Germany and the enormous sacrifice paid to achieve the victory (Moscow Echo, May 3). Instead, state propaganda trumpets with loud fanfare the glorification of Russia’s readiness to build up every element of its Armed Forces. This official narrative further serves as a warning to the country’s neighbors that the Army and Navy remain instruments of choice in Moscow’s policy (, May 5).

Greeting the parading battalions, President Vladimir Putin may mention briefly that, in the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), which remains the main reference point in the “patriotic” discourse, Russia fought on the same side with the United States. Hopes linger in the Kremlin that it may still be possible to cultivate a personal rapport between Putin and US President Donald Trump; and their recent telephone conversation injected a new dose of exhilaration to such aspirations (Kommersant, May 2). However, another strategic patrol by a pair of Tu-95MS bombers accompanied by Su-35 fighters along the Alaskan coast has sent a different and far more direct message to Washington (RBC, May 5). Every Russian military maneuver such as this invariably has a pronounced anti-US tone, and diplomacy seeks to build on this virtual power projection. Ukraine, which also made a great contribution to the common victory in 1945, now watches Russian parades with apprehension as the latter country’s heavy artillery delivers daily barrages against Ukrainian positions in the Donbas war zone (RBC, May 2). These deadly duels do not make the news in Moscow; rather, the effectiveness of Russia’s military force is advertised almost exclusively through domestic coverage of the Syria campaign.

Regarding the Syrian civil war, Putin recently tried to sell Trump on the idea of carving out four “safe areas” effectively under Russian supervision (see EDM, May 4). He has even ordered to reinstate the agreement on “de-conflicting” air operations, which was suspended after the US cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airbase a month ago (, May 6). That strike was a shock to Moscow, but there has been no follow up by the US, so Russian operations have returned to their “hit-and-have-no-care” pattern, notwithstanding the casualty figures (RBC, May 3). Putin is also courting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is more irked with US support to the Syrian Kurds than with Russian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime (Kommersant, May 4). It is difficult, however, to find in Syria new opportunities for showing the destructive power of Russian arms. And the sinking of the old intelligence vessel Liman, after its collision with a livestock freighter near the entry to the Bosporus (see EDM, May 4), was a minor incident that nonetheless exposed the feebleness of Russia’s proudly brandished military muscle (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 4).

It is the Russian domestic audience that, in fact, constitutes the main target of Moscow’s shows of military might. Indeed, 37 percent of Russians declare the Armed Forces to be a facet of their country they are most proud of, while only 29 percent are most proud of Russian culture (, May 4). At the same time, the patent falsity of militaristic propaganda translates into habitual hypocrisy of public expressions of “patriotic” unity (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 6). The May 9 Victory Day parade and such “innovative” military games as the reconstruction of the battle for the Reichstag (a model of which was erected outside Moscow) are perceived as a form of cheap entertainment (, May 5). In fact, it may not be all that cheap, as the budget for the Moscow celebrations is estimated at 500 million rubles ($8.6 million) (RBC, May 5). Wasteful spending is becoming a serious social irritant, as real incomes contract ever more painfully and Moscow authorities initiate a program to demolish apartment houses mass constructed in the 1960s, with rather unclear plans for compensation (, May 5). Putin seems to fear a sudden explosion of protests. But the blending of his personality cult with militaristic jingoism is unlikely to produce a reliable prophylactic (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 4).

Public receptiveness to the official message of patriotic unity is eroded by growing understanding that Putin’s elites are committed only to self-enrichment, while their demonstrations of devotion to the cause of the military build-up are merely camouflage for greedy egoism (Novaya Gazeta, May 4). These elites continue their fierce squabbles for diminishing revenues. Presently, it is Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who is seen by feuding clans as a “weak link” in the predatory food chain. For Putin, his loyal but ineffectual sidekick has become a liability, though one currently difficult to dump (, April 27). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on the other hand, has gained in stature and influence beyond all other courtiers in Putin’s competing “inner circles”; the May 9 parade will only add more shine to Shoigu’s “strong man” image (New Times, May 1). Putin may enjoy playing the commander-in-chief by occasionally donning designer fatigues. But military culture, with its camaraderie-in-arms attitude, is largely foreign to him. As any aging authoritarian leader, he has grown suspicious of his war-seasoned top brass.

Militarism may seem to be a useful tool for mobilizing the declining and disoriented country, but it clashes with the economic reality of stagnation. Moreover, it fails to answer the demographic trends determining the further shrinking of the pool of conscripts. Propaganda can only momentarily distract the electorate from painful social problems, which are aggravated by the elites’ shameless corruption. These predatory clans are penetrated by and intermixed with various special services and law enforcement—but not with the military. Thus, virtual and real-life war games are, for the former group, merely a means of ensuring a grasp on power. Putin himself would much prefer to engage in high-level networking and business deals, but he is reduced to relying on military instruments, which he neither fully understands nor completely trusts. Russia is not the military machine that the Soviet Union was. But entertaining fantasies about its glorious military past and indulging in aggressive discourses is not innocuous self-delusion. Risks of war are driven upward with every pledge to make Russia’s military might count again.