This year’s Victory Day in Russia—May 9—was again an all-national extravaganza, despite extremely cold and rainy weather in Moscow. According to the minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, military parades were planned in 28 Russian cities, involving 140,000 service members, over 2,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 149 aircraft, as well as naval ships and submarines (Militarynews.ru, May 2). In Moscow, over 10,000 military personnel, some in battledress fatigues, others in gold-glittering uniforms mimicking old Russian imperial or Stalinist post-war garments, marched past the stands on Red Square. Overall, 28 columns of service members marched through Red Square that day, and one of those consisted of 210 female personnel goose-stepping in high-heeled boots and short, tight white skirts. The parade also included 106 pieces of heavy military hardware: tanks, guns, other armor, and missiles of different sorts, including land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), or maybe dummies of missiles on newly painted launchers. A low flyby by 72 aircraft was planned: strategic and tactical bombers, fighters, military transport jets and various helicopters. The number of 72 aircraft in the Moscow flyby was symbolic—to mark this year as the 72nd anniversary of Victory Day in Europe (Militarynews.ru, May 9).
The chief of the aerospace forces (VKS), Colonel General Viktor Bondarev, announced, “Practically all the pilots that will be overflying Red Square on May 9, have been decorated for combat tours in Syria. Their performance will engender envy abroad. We must show off the best we can” (Militarynews.ru, May 8). Then came the glitch: On May 8, Moscow was hit by a snowstorm. The authorities sent up special aircraft to seed the clouds with different chemical compounds to clear the skies for the show, but failed—May 9 was a chilly day in Moscow, with low clouds and sometimes a drizzle. The air show was called off at the last moment, after the aircraft were already in the air and maneuvering into formation to fly over President Vladimir Putin, the top military and government brass, and the enthusiastic crowds. According to official announcements, the air show was canceled for security concerns—the low cloud cover and bad visibility. Nonetheless, the former air force chief, Army General (ret.) Pyotr Deyneykin, declared, “This was unfortunate, but it was the right decision not to take risks and cancel the overflight. Anyway the parade was an unqualified success, especially the marching girls” (Interfax, May 9).
Another major snag in the ceremonies happened in St. Petersburg. Although the review of the parade columns, the display of armor and missiles, and the planned flyby by military aircraft went according to plan, the expected display of up to ten naval ships in the Neva River never happened and no explanation was given. The parade in St. Petersburg was the second largest in Russia, after the Moscow Red Square display: over 4,000 service members, some 96 pieces of heavy weaponry and over 40 aircraft took part. The Navy cannot parade ships in Moscow, so traditionally it uses the Neva River to display some of its men-of-war. This year, the St. Petersburg city authorities reportedly prepared moorings for the ships, and some of the warships arrived in St. Petersburg on May 3. But on May 6, apparently other orders were given and all these vessels left. Quoting an unnamed naval service member, the local well-respected news outlet Fontanka reported that the warships were ordered to return to base to take onboard missiles and ordinance that they unloaded before entering the Neva to be moored at the center of St. Petersburg. These vessels were then sent to sea straightway to counter the threat of a sudden missile attack by the United States (Fontanka, May 6).
A US destroyer, the USS Carney (DDG 64), allegedly loaded with long-range cruise missiles, reportedly entered the Baltic Sea and moved into the Bay of Gdańsk, close to the Russian Kaliningrad enclave. This deployment apparently caused Russian commanders to panic and put all available battle-ready assets to sea to counter the purported threat. Attempts by other Russian news outlets to obtain any official clarification as to why the ships suddenly left St. Petersburg turned up nothing—unnamed officials apparently told reporters the USS Carney was not the reason for the sudden combat redeployment. But at the same time, no other plausible explanation was given (RBC, May 9).
On April 7, US destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross suddenly and highly successfully launched 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles (of which, one failed to reach its target) at the large Syrian government airbase of Shayrat, in Homs province. The Syrian air force had earlier allegedly used this base to carry out a chemical weapons attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun. Russia’s most modern VKS assets deployed in Syria evidently not only failed to stop the US attack, but also seemed to have problems tracking the flight of all of the cruise missiles (see EDM, April 27).
The May 9 parade on Red Square in Moscow may be the most important annual public military event in Russia, but it could be seen by Russian military staffs as potentially the most dangerous. Every year on this day, Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who under the Russian constitution becomes acting president if Putin is disabled), Shoigu, as well as almost all other top government officials and top brass sit at a precise time, in a precise location, out in the open; moreover, their whereabouts are constantly verified by live publicly available TV broadcasts. Thus, every May 9, Russia risks being entirely “decapitated”—its military/political leadership decimated. Nor would a nuclear bomb be necessary: with today’s high-precision weaponry, a handful of intelligent, conventional cruise missiles would suffice. So when the USS Carney suddenly “snuck” into a potential launch position, some 1,200 kilometers from Red Square, panic among the top brass may have indeed kicked in.
Russian military planners (say, deputy chief of the operational main directorate of the general staff—Lieutenant General Viktor Poznikhir) have been constantly professing the threat of a sudden, stealthy US missile attack that could take out Russia’s leadership, its command-and-control assets, and disable its strategic nuclear deterrence potential (Interfax, April 26; see EDM, May 12, 2016). The Russian top brass, together with the intelligence community, have built up this frightening scenario to scare the Kremlin into disbursing increasingly more national wealth into massive rearmament—but now they seem to be living within that nightmare.