Russia Celebrates Past Victories: Parading an Image of “Strength”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 91

NATO troops march across Moscow's Red Square in Russia's Victory Day parade on May 9, 2010.

Once again, celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany, veterans, serving Russian soldiers, equipment and weapons were displayed on Red Square for the May 9 Victory Day Parade. The 65th anniversary of that victory always promised to be staged on a larger scale than previous parades, since the tradition was recently revived. The first Victory Day parade was held in Moscow on June 24, 1945, ordered by the Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Stalin. Many had expected Stalin’s image to feature prominently in this year’s parade, though it was in fact toned down by the Russian authorities.

Involving more than 10,000 personnel, 150 tracked vehicles, as well as 127 aircraft and helicopters, the parade on Red Square was also unusual in that NATO troops participated, from France, Poland, the UK and US, despite the domestic controversy aroused by such a symbolic gesture of wartime unity. Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, addressed participants and guests, saying: “This war made us a strong nation…We have won not simply a military victory, but also a moral victory.” Such an appeal to past strength was also accompanied by reference to the foreign involvement in the conflict and during the parade: “The joint march [on Red Square] symbolizes our readiness to defend peace, to prevent the revision of the results of the war, to prevent new tragedies” (RIA Novosti, Channel One TV, May 9).

Medvedev, in recent interviews, has avoided attributing too much attention to the role of Stalin in achieving victory in World War II, instead emphasizing the contribution made by ordinary people throughout the former Soviet Union, and referred to his “mass crimes” against the Soviet people (EDM, May 10). Nonetheless, the symbolism displayed during the Moscow parade, and in 72 cities in Russia, as well as elsewhere in the CIS, carried mixed and contradictory messages.

“Modern” weapons on display, were in a fact curious mixture of those that have long been in service and others passed off as “new,” including the ground-based nuclear missile launcher for the Topol-M, the Pantsir-S1 and Buratino air defense complexes (the Buratino is a heavy flame thrower) and Iskander-M tactical missile system. Various flags and banners were shown suspended from Mi-8 helicopters and a group of Su-25 fighter jets formed the figure “65” for a fly-past. Mi-28 and Ka-52 helicopters also featured in the air display. Three Tu-160 and three Tu-95MC and six Tu-M3 strategic bombers were on display, accompanied by MiG-31 and MiG-29 fighters. The World War II main battle tank, the T-34, was among hardware shown from the war, and some examples of SU-100 self-propelled howitzers. The newest armored vehicle, Tigr, led a column of modern equipment featuring T-90 tanks, BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, BMP-3 infantry combat vehicles, tow-trucks, self-propelled launchers, and additional hardware. Meticulous planning included a major rehearsal on May 6, while the overall cost of the Moscow parade is estimated at 122 million rubles ($4 million) (RIA Novosti, Interfax, ITAR-TASS, May 9; Xinhua, May 7).

The French naval frigate, Latouche Treville, and the US naval frigate, USS Kaufman, arrived at the Russian Northern Fleet’s main base of Severomorsk on May 7 in order to participate in the celebrations. The US was represented during the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9 by Vice-Admiral Harry B. Harris, the Commander of the US 6th Fleet (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, May 7). Indeed, the international dimension was much more pronounced than in previous parades, with the leaders of 25 countries invited to attend. The Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents led their own ceremonies in Minsk and Kyiv, while the US President, Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, stayed away, though none intended their absence to be interpreted as a snub –in the case of the French leader, for instance, the crisis in the Euro zone took precedence. By contrast, however, the offer to send the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, to the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow was reportedly vetoed by Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, in what was clearly intended as a snub and likely disapproval of Biden’s direct meetings with the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili (Channel One TV, May 9; ITAR-TASS, May 4).

Yet, the image portrayed in Moscow appeared to conflate one of wartime strength and national unity in the face of extreme peril, with a contemporary overtly spun illusion of the armed forces, restricted to showing modern equipment and weapons that are simply not being procured by the Russian military in sufficient quantities (http://www.vesti.ru/videos?vid=271461, May 9). Thus, the appeal to previous victories in war, and the presentation of a strong modern military were not only contradictory but contained misleading and illusory features. The rate of military modernization in Russia is too slow to allow the targets set by Medvedev to be met during the next ten years, and no one in the Russian government or defense industry has offered any solution to these problems (EDM, April 27).

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in May 1941 exposed the limited capabilities and readiness of Soviet forces, which were no match for what Hitler had unleashed. In a recent article in the journal of the Russian General Staff, Voyennaya Mysl, Major-General (retired) Ivan Vorobyev and Colonel Valeriy Kiselev examined the adjustments to the table of organization and equipment conducted in 1941, as a consequence of the German onslaught. They concluded that the early stages of the war revealed the inadequacies of the existing structures, and used this argument as the basis for supporting the current military reform, and appealed for more progressive thinking to meet the challenges of modern warfare (Voyennaya Mysl, No. 1, 2010).

Such military discussions on the nature of past conflicts and modern demands in relation to ongoing defense reform, also mirror Medvedev’s efforts to be more realistic in assessing the role of Stalin as a wartime leader. Yet, the gap between image and reality in the Russian armed forces, which the Moscow parade at least partly attempted to conceal, may also demand a fresh attitude towards cooperation with foreign partners. The Russian leadership, meanwhile, struggles to reconcile its temptation to dwell upon past victories with the harsh realities of contemporary defense reform.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>