The anniversary celebrations of victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945, which ended World War II in Europe, have become the main yearly public relations event in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Annual May 9 military parades began in 1995, when then-president Boris Yeltsin used the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) as a grand occasion to redeem Russia’s military prestige, seriously tarnished by the disastrous first Chechen War. In Soviet times, there were only three military parades in Red Square on May 9: in 1965, 1985 and 1990. May 9, 2020—the 75th VE Day anniversary—had for months been promoted by the Kremlin as the main state event of the year, to be bigger than any such commemorations to date. In Moscow, some 15,000 service members, 225 pieces of heavy military equipment and around 150 aircraft were being prepared for deployment on Red Square. About 116,000 troops were prepared to march in parades in 475 towns and cities all over Russia, doubling the number deployed for these parades in 2019 (Militarynews.ru, February 10).
Massive and costly preparations continued in Moscow and all over Russia despite the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of service personnel were gathered in special parade drill camps to extensively rehearse the ceremonial march they would perform in Putin’s regal presence. The schedule of closures of Moscow’s downtown districts was announced to allow the troops to run live on-spot rehearsals with tanks, guns and other equipment in the city streets and on Red Square. Weapons systems, including strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), were moved by rail and road to the capital. At the Alabino military base, in the Moscow region, there is a specially built same-size duplicate of Red Square on which troops and heavy weapons crews train for months to prepare for each year’s May 9 défilé (Militarynews.ru, April 2). But the COVID-19 pandemic decided otherwise. First, on April 15, a “reliable source” in the Kremlin told journalists an announcement was imminent about the parade postponement; and on April 16, Putin issued a statement that real-time rehearsals “are impossible at present since the COVID-19 outbreak has not yet peaked.” Putin expressed confidence that the Russian people would unite anyway to celebrate May 9 at home, with family, and “together we will overcome the present threats.” The military parade and “other mass public events” will still happen later this year, the Russian president insisted (Interfax, April 16).
The postponement of the VE Day parade in Moscow and in all other Russian regions is a grave matter for Putin. In his statement, he insisted the decision was not taken lightly, having arrived at it “with a heavy heart” (Interfax, April 16). The grandiose celebrations, at which a number of foreign leaders and state delegations were expected, would have enhanced Putin as a top world leader abroad and, maybe more importantly, internally. The Kremlin was planning an April 22, 2020, plebiscite that was to publicly legitimize new constitutional changes granting Putin the right to be reelected for two more presidential terms, until 2036 (see EDM, March 19). But the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures imposed in Moscow and other regions had already forced an indefinite postponement of the national plebiscite (see EDM, March 26). Now, the May 9 celebrations have also become victims of the coronavirus.
Putin is scheduled to run for reelection, in accordance with the amendments, only in 2024. The April 22 and May 9 event postponements certainly do not detract from or directly threaten Putin’s power. But they were both supposed to be essential public relations opportunities, which would have, presumably, solidified Putin’s standing with the Russian people amidst serious public health and economic stress, when the qualities of his decisions and leadership are being questioned. A recent independent Levada poll indicates the growing erosion of active public support, which sees Putin as a remote ruler who cares primarily for the wellbeing of the super-rich oligarchs, the military, the police and security services (siloviki), who are his true base of power. Of course, some 60 percent of Russians are not specifically against Putin, and this inert neutral mass is the social foundation of the regime, which remains solidly entrenched and stable (Vedomosti, April 14).
The main center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Russia is in Moscow, and the local health system (the best in the country) is already overwhelmed to capacity; but the overall number of COVID-19 deaths is still in the hundreds, not thousands. At the same time, the economic stress connected to the pandemic and quarantine measures is beginning to hit hard. Millions may become unemployed as privately owned businesses go bust and fail to pay wages. The Russian Federation does not have any real social safety net to deal with mass unemployment, while the government is failing to provide adequate financial support to mitigate the escalating stress. At the same time, Putin resides in isolation, apparently ruling remotely from his dacha. The Russian authorities first announced they will allocate some 0.3 percent of the national GDP for crisis financial relief; now they are talking about spending some 1 percent of GDP, but that is still many times less than needed. Moreover, the distribution of aid has been ineffective. And the state budget revenue has dried up on account of collapsing prices of oil and other export commodities caused by the world economy going into a deep recession (Fontanka, April 13).
The hope in Moscow, as in many other capitals, is that this crisis will end soon with a rapid recovery, hopefully by the end of this summer. The Duma has promptly passed legislation restoring September 3, 1945, as the official date of the end of World War II ,which was previously commemorated on September 2, as in other countries (Militarynews.ru, April 14). The legislation is backed by the Kremlin. This reinstated Stalinist “decisive Russian defeat of Japanese militarism” celebration day may be designed to provide Putin with a date to have his postponed military parade. The overall assumption seems to be that, by September, oil prices and the economy will be going up, the coronavirus will have dissipated, and Putin will be able to have his Red Square victory lap.