Victory Day was a sign that Putin is losing

Russia's emphatic commemoration of Victory Day was designed to bolster president Vladimir Putin's stance but can be seen as doing the opposite, writes Stephen Blackwell.

Chinese servicemen march during the Victory Day military parade in the Red Square in Moscow. Yuri Kochetkov / EPA
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Saturday’s Victory Day parade in Moscow was a compelling demonstration of Russian military might. More than 100 planes, 16,000 troops and 200,000 civilians carrying portraits of relatives who fought in the Second World War were involved. New weaponry on display included the Armata tank and a new intercontinental ballistic missile launcher that was developed in response to Nato anti-missile systems. All in all, the display was an immaculately choreographed display of defiance against the western powers that the Kremlin regime insists are set on isolating Russia and undermining its status as a major power.

The Victory Day festivities projected an image of national defiance at odds with what the Kremlin was attempting a little over a year ago during the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi. Shortly before the Games, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that his country “should present a smiling face to the world”. Mr Putin is well aware of the value of “soft power”, which is defined as the ability to influence opinion through ideological persuasion and cultural attraction rather than by using military force or paying money. He has devoted considerable resources to Russia’s media so that they can take his case to the wider world.

The absence of western leaders from Saturday’s event was a notable contrast to the 2005 parade, which was attended by US president George W Bush. This time, the only Nato country leaders who were prepared to visit Moscow were German chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

And Ms Merkel announced that she would not be present at the parade but would lay a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. Chinese leader Xi Jinping was the most senior leader to attend, along with India’s president Pranab Mukherjee and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah El Sisi. Kim Jong-un had initially accepted the invitation but North Korea eventually announced that he would not attend because of concerns over unwelcome media attention.

In an allusion to the absent western powers, Mr Putin used the occasion to condemn those seeking to create a “unipolar world”. This was widely interpreted as a coded attack on the US. Ever since relations with the West deteriorated after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the Kremlin has deliberately elided Russia’s collective memory of the Second World War with the simmering conflict in Ukraine. Analogies with the war have been regularly used by the Russian media in their coverage of the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas. The Kiev government has been accused of encouraging fascist elements, while Mr Putin himself denounced the Maidan protests of winter 2013-2014 as a western-orchestrated plot that led to a “neo-Nazi” coup.

While portraying the conflict in Ukraine as a conflict between heroic Russian patriots and sinister fascists undoubtedly boosts Mr Putin’s domestic support, it also serves to feed European suspicions about the Kremlin’s intentions as it seeks to restore Russian might. A particular source of contention is Mr Putin’s stress on the Soviet role in the “liberation” of eastern Europe. In the popular memories of Poland, Hungary and Romania among others, the arrival of the Soviet armies in 1944 and 1945 ensured the demise of Nazi-led fascism and also led to the imposition of communist rule and the effective substitution of one form of oppression with another.

During the Cold War, Soviet power was symbolised by military formations marching through Red Square under the impassive gaze of Politburo leaders. However, under the communist regime, Victory Day was usually overshadowed by the regime’s celebrations of International Labour Day on May 1 and the Bolshevik revolution on November 7. After the first Victory Day parade in 1945, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin prohibited further displays and the day was only revived as a public holiday in 1965 though full scale military parades were only staged twice more in 1985 and 1990.

By that time, the vast share of the national budget allocated to the military by the Soviet Union was seen as one of the primary causes of the economic woes in the communist country. Also, Moscow’s dominant position in the eastern half of Europe was crumbling. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Victory Parades were only relaunched in 1995 by the then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin as a means to boost his personal popularity and the flagging morale of his armed forces.

Under Mr Putin, the Victory Day parade has evolved further as a display of national strength and resilience. The Russian president will take pride in the military hardware displayed on Saturday but the absence of so many foreign leaders only illustrates his international isolation. As Russia’s economy deteriorates, there is a danger that efforts to stoke militarism and nationalism could unleash forces that the Kremlin might find increasingly difficult to control in the future. If anything, the parade has underlined the extent to which the Kremlin is failing to win the battle for global approval and influence.

Stephen Blackwell is an inter­national politics and security ­analyst