In Soviet times grandiose displays of military might during parades on Red Square in the center of Moscow were mostly designed to impress western Cold War adversaries. The last Soviet military parade was in November 1990. Russian society was engulfed in antimilitary sentiment caused by the unpopular Afghan war of the 1980’s that ended in humiliating defeat and Red Square parades were terminated until 1995.
The 50th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, 1995 was used by the then President, Boris Yeltsin’s, administration as a pretext to restore military parades. In 1995 world leaders flocked to Moscow led by US President, Bill Clinton, – to offer political support to the internally beleaguered Yeltsin regime despite public criticism of brutal Russian actions in Chechnya. The parade on Red Square and an impressive display of hardware on Poklonnaya Gora Victory Park in 1995 was intended to show that the Russian military still had deadly capabilities, despite its debacles in Chechnya. The Victory Day military parades grew in magnitude. On May 9, 2010 over 10,500 servicemen marched in Moscow and more than 100,000 nationwide. The parades began throughout the country simultaneously regardless of time zones; though in the Far East it was already evening (Vedomosti, May 7).
The main PR thrust of the restored post-communist Red Square military parades became internal, to impress the Russian populace. Record audiences viewed the Red Square parade live on Russia’s government controlled TV channels (RIA Novosti, May 11). The interior ministry reported that some 17 million Russians participated on May 9, in public Victory Day holiday events and some 300,000 police and interior ministry soldiers were deployed to keep the peace (RIA Novosti, May 10).
There were 150 tracked vehicles, as well as 127 aircraft and helicopters on parade on Red Square on May 9 (EDM, May 11). Communist Party leader, Gennady Zuganov, announced at a rally on Lubyanka Square in central Moscow: “All the 127 planes and helicopters that flew today and all the heavy equipment on parade was made in the USSR during the great Soviet epoch” (Interfax, May 9). Zuganov is more or less accurate: the weaponry was Soviet in nature, a relic of a past epoch; some of it partially modernized using Western electronic components and know how. Yet, within the post-Soviet space that Moscow regards as its legitimate sphere of special interests, the Russian military machine (as displayed on parade) seems formidable.
For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union small national contingents from all CIS states, excluding Uzbekistan, marched on Red Square, symbolizing to the public the restoration under the Russian mantle of the unity of the former Soviet empire. Token Western contingents with military bands from France, UK, US and Poland were also invited to march on Red Square in an apparent gesture of goodwill (Interfax, May 9). Moscow is offering an open hand to the West, with lucrative deals to buy technologies in exchange for oil and metals to modernize its industry and military. However, friendship must be solidly based on a clear recognition of Russia’s special territorial interests in Eurasia. Some leading Western nations seem to already accept the concept, while others still waver.
Last week the local Western diplomatic community speculated about why Moscow refused to accept on May 9 both Prince Charles and the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, as replacements for President, Barack Obama, and the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who were unable to attend. Western diplomats were puzzled as to why Moscow would deliberately snub the UK and US for no good reason. The author learned about this development on May 4, from a senior German diplomat which later was corroborated by top US, UK and French officials. Surprisingly, the Russian media, including the liberal (Gazprom-controlled) Ekho Moskvy, refused to run this story in an apparent fit of acute self-censorship. On May 6, at a British reception I told the story to Guardian correspondent, Luke Harding, including my own conclusion that a decision of such importance required Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin’s, approval, though officially the rebuff came through regular diplomatic channels (Moscow stated that only heads of state or government were accepted). The author allowed Harding to cite him, since Western diplomats confirmed the story but refused to be quoted (www.guardian.co.uk, May 7). After the story became public knowledge, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced: “The information is absurd, absolutely false and does not require any comment” (Interfax, May 10).
On May 8, both the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, canceled their trips to Moscow, citing the economic crisis in the EU. Sarkozy and Berlusconi did not offer any high-level substitutes, apparently knowing they would be rebuffed anyway. On May 9, 2005 more than 50 world leaders attended the 60th Victory Day celebrations. This time, Kremlin officials predicted some 40 would attend, but in the end only 21 were there, including to Russia’s annoyance only one prominent Western leader –German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (Kommersant, May 11). Merkel’s presence was somewhat questionable, since the celebrations did not feature any sense of reconciliation between former foes, but instead Soviet heroism and sacrifice in defeating Nazi Germany.
Leaders of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh, and Eduard Kokoyti, were in Moscow as well as Georgian opposition leaders, Zurab Noghaideli, and Nino Burjanadze, whom Moscow seems to be grooming as the future leadership of Georgia when the present regime of President, Mikheil Saakashvili, is overthrown. At a groundbreaking ceremony of the construction of a Great Patriotic War memorial dedicated to Soviet-Georgian soldiers at Poklonnaya Gora on May 8, attended by Noghaideli and Burjanadze, Putin expressed his hope that “a new good page will open in Georgian-Russian relations.” In the same speech Putin did not mince his words, calling the present Georgian regime “cynical,” “barbarous,” “political vandals that betrayed their forefathers” and “use malice, hate and destruction.” However, according to Putin, “they will fail, they have no future” (www.premier.gov.ru, May 8).
After the establishment of an apparently pro-Russian government in Ukraine, and the stifling of internal dissent in Russia, Saakashvili appears to be Moscow’s last enemy in the CIS. Putin appears to believe the Georgian leader’s days are numbered.