Mark Galeotti of New York University -
It would be glib to say that everything you need to know about today’s Russia you can learn from the Moscow Victory Day parade of May 9. But it would not be too much of a stretch.
First of all, consider the choreography and symbolic references of the event. Some 16,500 soldiers took part, the serried ranks stepping in sharp unison, like the Kremlin’s fondest dreams of a country lock-stepped to the instructions coming from the 'Power Vertical'. Beyond that, the parade fused together the contradictory elements of Vladimir Putin’s new nationalist ideology.
There is, of course, national pride and military might, self-identifying Russia through its capacity to thrive and survive in the harshest geopolitical conditions.
Part of the reason it is able to do that is its commitment to an historic mission. Quite what that may be varies from time to time, from speaker to speaker, but the messianic quality of modern rhetoric was also embodied in the parade, over and above the celebration of what Putin, speaking at last year’s event, called “the winning power of patriotism.”
There was a Russian Orthodox dimension; Defense Minister Shoigu pointedly crossed himself before reviewing the troops, for example. This blends with the rich Soviet iconography of the event, though. The parade was opened by the victory banner hoisted over Hitler’s Reichstag, its hammer and sickle has now been comfortably absorbed into the official symbolic canon, stripped of its notional connections with any pesky anti-capitalist or egalitarian sentiment.
After all, the central characteristic of Russia’s 'Den Pobeda' (Victory Day) pageantry is not just the celebration of past glories, hardships and triumphs, but their mobilization for the Kremlin’s contemporary use.
The actual message Putin wanted to convey was a little more of the velvet glove, even if the whole event was about Russia’s mailed fist. His speech was much less belligerent than last year’s, which was full of paeans to the “unbending will, fearlessness and firmness” of the Soviet people and how important it was to “become emotionally aware of what it is like to be devoted to the Motherland and how important it is to defend the country's interests”.
Instead, we had a Putin more in sorrow than in anger, seeking to present Russia’s global aims — and Ukraine clearly loomed over the event — as moderate, rational, and limited. The decision by Western leaders to snub the parade — presented in Russia as something forced on them by US pressure — allowed him to return to a familiar theme, the purported global hegemony exerted by Washington. “We have seen attempts to create a unipolar world,” he said. “We see how military-bloc thinking is gaining force. All this undermines the sustainability of global development.”
Of course, much of this is as disingenuous as it is self-interested. Washington could only wish to be a ruthless hegemon, and ‘military-bloc thinking’ is at the heart of the military doctrine Moscow adopted at the end of last year. However, this is a line which plays especially well outside Western circles, where suspicion of US motives and despair at its geopolitical clumsiness go hand-in-hand. And this was a parade that explicitly inclined to this constituency.
There may have been no Western leaders present (though some, like Czech President Miloš Zeman, were at least in town), but there was a significant guest list beyond that. Not just pariahs and also-rans like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, but the 27 foreign dignitaries included China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Pranab Mukherjee and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Even the actual constitution of the parade reflected in some small way Moscow’s desire to use the event to accumulate a little geopolitical capital. Alongside the Russians marched contingents from the Indian Grenadiers, the Mongolian army and the Beijing Honour Guard, all participating for the first time.
Russia, to be blunt, may have few real friends. But if it is not regarded by many as a positive example to follow, it is at least able to leverage its self-appointed role as a challenger of American “hegemony”. When they chose to come to Moscow, these leaders knew that they were not only honouring Russia, they were flouting a Western consensus. It may only be a symbolic act, but it says something about the fault lines between the West and the rising powers of Asia, in particular.
Of course, the event was also a chance for Moscow to gauge its status as a hegemon in its own right, over post-Soviet Eurasia. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko seems keen to stake out a position as the first rat to leap from Moscow’s sinking ship, and stayed home for the Minsk parade. By contrast, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev even held his festivities a day early so that he could attend the Moscow bash. Then again, as talk circulates of a possible trade war with Moscow, maybe he felt he had particular bridges to mend.
After all, part and parcel of heading a Eurasian state is managing a prickly, over-compensatingly assertive Moscow. Events such as Victory Day are not only a great symbolic chance to pay one’s respects (reminiscent of turning up to a Mafia don’s birthday party), they are also opportunities for behind-the-scenes relationship-building and negotiation.
Part of the reason the Nazarbayevs (and his peers: he was also joined by the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) have to pay attention to Moscow is its military might. Russia may not be a global power any more, but the forces arrayed at the parade underscore that it is undoubtedly a regional strongman.
It is also — and this is part of its appeal to nations such as Cuba, Venezuela and Serbia — a willing supplier of weapons systems to countries unable to afford leading-edge Western offerings, or denied the opportunity to buy them. The parade is therefore always something of a shop window and Moscow was eagerly displaying its spring collection.
Alongside World War II vintage T-34 tanks and SU-100 tank destroyers were the most modern Russian armoured vehicles, for example. The T-14 Armata main battle tank represents the first genuinely new design of the post-Soviet era. The Kurganets-25 and Bumerang personnel carriers, also debuted this year, will become the standard in the Russian army across the next decade.
Finally, the actual choice of the units parading also says something about the message the Kremlin wants to convey. Last year, the big deal was the presence of Spetsnaz commandos in the distinctive combat gear in which, as the so-called “little green men”, they seized Crimea. This time, they were again there in the shape of detachments from the 98th Guards Airborne Division and 16th Spetsnaz Brigade.
However, a sign that the focus of the war has shifted from Crimea to the Donbas was the presence, making their first appearance at the parade, of a contingent of Kuban Cossacks. While appearing in period Great Patriotic War uniforms, it is hardly likely to be coincidental that Kuban Cossacks have more recently been fighting amongst the volunteers and mercenaries of Ukraine’s rebellious south-east.
Overall, then, the parade was not only further evidence that Moscow knows how to put on a show. It demonstrated that the Kremlin, while doing what it can to undermine Western unity, is also keen at once to maintain its hegemonic status in Eurasia while encouraging the rise of a “coalition of the unwilling”, an entente of nations uncomfortable with, or downright suspicious of the US-led Western world order.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/)
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