Victory Day parade 2022: will Russia use event for Ukraine war recruitment drive?

The first Victory Day Parade was held in June 1945 with 40,000 soldiers marching through Moscow

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Moscow was gearing up on Monday for its Victory Day Parade, the annual celebration of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany after the 1941 invasion that Adolf Hitler called Operation Barbarossa.

This year’s parade has been particularly controversial due to Russian military setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24, as well as Moscow’s repeated assertion that the war is designed to “de-Nazify” the country.

President Vladimir Putin’s critics say this stated objective is propaganda, asserting that Ukrainian far right parties such as the Azov Movement and Right Sector have never gained significant support and, even if they had, it was no reason to escalate a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Why is Victory Day celebrated in Russia?

Historians agree the Soviet Union paid the highest cost in terms of military and civilian losses in the Second World War. In addition to losing more than 20 million people, entire industrial cities and major ports were left in ruins, including Stalingrad (now Volgograd) Leningrad (now St Petersberg) and Kyiv. For this reason, the defeat of the Nazis — who were particularly cruel in occupied areas of the Soviet Union—was met with elation.

For many observers, the conflation of the Second World War commemoration parade with the war in Ukraine — where at least five million people died during the Nazi war to occupy the Soviet Union, is highly controversial.

Analysts and politicians have said that Russia is experiencing a manpower shortage and Mr Putin could call for a general mobilisation of reserve troops and a mass conscription drive, which could prove extremely unpopular in Russia. One year of military service is compulsory in Russia for men aged 18 to 27, but the number of men conscripted each year has not risen higher than 270,000.

A general mobilisation could raise a much larger army, potentially boosting Russia's force levels by several hundred thousand men, although this raises questions as to how quickly they could be trained and equipped.

British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said that Mr Putin “is probably going to declare on May Day that ‘we are now at war with the world's Nazis and we need to mass mobilise the Russian people'," he told the UK’s LBC radio.

Speaker of the Russian parliament Vyacheslav Volodin has denied that an announcement of general mobilisation will be made on the day.

What is Russia's Victory Day parade?

Russia and some western allied countries held celebrations and military parades after the defeat of Hitler in the Second World War in April 1945.

In Moscow, the first victory parade was held on June 24, involving 40,000 Soviet soldiers and a small number of Polish forces, whose country was at that point in the grip of Russian occupation.

But the parade did not become a regular fixture, with only three being held until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, being overshadowed by October Revolution day, which marked the birth of Communist Russia.

How does Russia celebrate Victory Day?

Several parades were held in the 1990s but under Vladimir Putin, the parade has once again become an annual event, showcasing Russian military power, including new equipment alongside historic vehicles from the Second World War.

During the coronavirus, parades were more subdued and scaled down than usual, but they typically involve marches of units in full dress uniform from all branches of the Russian military, music from the Military Bands Service of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Russian air force flyovers and showcases of the latest Russian military technology.

Why is the Victory Day parade controversial this year?

At least 20 million people died in the Soviet Union during the war, but Ukrainians — many of whom were opposed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, were divided, with some joining German forces or signing up for service in a pro-Nazi police force, the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police.

This was the case across almost all Nazi-occupied countries however, including France, the Netherlands and Belgium, where some government officials, political figures and parties allied with the Nazis. Despite the fact that it was never occupied, there were similarly pro-Nazi figures in the UK.

At the same time, millions of Ukrainians served with Soviet forces, defending Russia and fighting in some of the biggest battles in the war, including the Lower Dnieper offensive — fought in a part of the Dnieper river basin which is once again a conflict zone.

Alongside millions of Ukrainian soldiers who died, civilian losses to the Nazis were also heavy. Millions died, of all religious denominations including 1.5 million Jewish Ukrainians, with 33,000 killed in a single massacre at Babi Yar.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin has made historical references to this period, accusing Ukrainians of support for Nazism, calling them "Banderites," after prominent Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who briefly sided with the Nazis.

Updated: May 09, 2022, 9:30 AM