WEEKEND READ: Return to Red Square

At the height of the Soviet era, military parades through Red Square on Victory Day were a remarkable display of firepower and military strength. Today it serves a different purpose.

By the time you read this, Russia will have celebrated its annual May 9 Victory Day, and the Kremlin will have pulled out all the stops this year in order to send a clear message to the Russian people and the West.

Victory Day is one of the largest holidays in Russia. This year’s celebration has marked the 63rd anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 that legitimised the Soviet Union as a global leader and a powerful force with which the rest of the world would have to reckon.

During the Soviet era, this holiday was celebrated with enormous pomp and circumstance, with the full spectrum of Soviet military hardware on display, passing through Red Square and attended annually by foreign dignitaries. But the fall of the Soviet Union made Victory Day bittersweet; the holiday quickly became a reminder to Russians of just how far the motherland had fallen since its peak as one of the world’s two superpowers. Though Russia continued to celebrate the holiday, it was no longer accompanied by the fanfare. The parade became a shadow of its former self, with only a few pieces of military hardware and a small contingent of troops.

Everything changed for Russia in 2000, when former President Vladimir Putin came into power and shifted the country from catastrophe to reconstruction — a shift that has allowed the state, after just eight years, to return as a force on the international stage. Putin’s presidency was entirely focused on returning Russia to its status as a "great power.” He was not interested in the return of the Soviet Union per se, but he did use that level of greatness and global importance as a goal to strive for.

Putin began his presidency by consolidating the state’s control over Russia’s resources, infrastructure, economy, security and society. He organised the country’s enormous energy wealth into something that could fund Russia’s resurgence and serve as a tool (and sometimes a weapon) to enforce Moscow’s will at home and abroad. Russia reinforced this idea by resuming large-scale military exercises, limiting foreigners’ access to the Russian economy and consolidating the government’s control mainly under Putin’s party. This is not to say that the consolidation, rebuilding and resurgence is complete, but it has reached some important milestones and given Moscow a confidence not seen in decades.

As Putin left office May 7, passing the torch to new President Dmitri Medvedev, the two men planned May 9’s Victory Day as if Moscow had reached a Soviet level of assurance. The celebration is slated to include a full-scale military parade on Red Square, which will include not only infantry, mechanised and armoured units, but also Strategic Aviation elements and the Strategic Rocket Forces. The parade will be the first time the successor to the Red Army will show off its armour and missiles at Red Square. Organisers have revealed that more than 8,000 soldiers (in new uniforms) will be involved; some 30 aircraft, including strategic bombers and fighter jets, will fly overhead; and more than 200 pieces of military hardware will roll across the square, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, artillery rocket launchers, air defence systems and surface-to-surface missile systems including four Topol-M mobile intercontinental ballistic missile systems.

But why hold such a big show in the days after Putin leaves office, and while the Kremlin has yet to fully consolidate and refurbish the military? Simple: to send a message to the parade’s domestic and international audiences.

First off, as Putin trades the presidency for the prime ministerial post, there is concern within some of the Kremlin factions that Medvedev will not be able to continue his predecessor’s master plan. Yes, Putin will still hold most of the power in his new role, but that does not mean that Medvedev’s reputation can simply be disregarded. Putin needs to put on a show of power for his young successor, especially since most of the sceptics in Russia that are not in Medvedev’s corner happen to be from Putin’s old faction of the KGB, which is now the Federal Security Bureau. Displaying Russia’s military might at the start of Medvedev’s presidency certainly achieves this; it might not fix the security factions’ prejudices against the new president, but it is a start. Parades are also a good way to rally the people’s support.

This also shows the West that a new president will not change Russia’s sabre-rattling. As in the past, this sort of parade will be of great interest to Western governments and intelligence agencies eager to see what new hardware the Russians have.

But more than that, this is a strategic time for Russia to display its defence capabilities since Moscow is locked in a tense stand-off with some of its former Soviet states and the West. Putin has accused the West of stoking another arms race, as the two sides cannot agree on new missile treaties and the United States is planning on implementing ballistic missile defence systems next door to Russia in Poland and the Czech Republic – inside the former Soviet sphere of influence. Moscow is also in a dispute with its small neighbour Georgia over Russian troops stationed in Georgia’s secessionist regions, with both sides on the verge of sparking an actual war.

Having 8,000 Russian soldiers, freshly painted equipment and some of the world’s most powerful missile systems all traipsed in force across and above the symbolic stage of Red Square is a clear signal to all those against Moscow, from Washington to Tbilisi, that Russia might never be fully restored to its former glory, but that it still has some very real and powerful tools that it can pull out if it wants to.

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