Victory Day in Russia continues to resonate throughout Russia society, and official propaganda in the past decade has strived to change the meaning of this emotionally charged and solemn day of remembrance into a feast of militarism and jingoism.
The slogan “we can do it again” (mozhem povtorit) pervaded loud festivities even during the pandemic-caused lockdown (Sibreal.org, May 6). Not so this year.
Military parades were canceled in many cities, and the public rally “Immortal Regiment” (Bessmertny Polk), which gathered large crowds carrying portraits of relatives who perished in past wars, was canceled even in Moscow. Officially, these changes were announced as reactions to security concerns; however, in reality, they are perhaps more about the inadvertent exposure of tens of thousands of casualties in the ongoing war against Ukraine (The Moscow Times, April 24).
The main military parade, nevertheless, was duly scheduled to proceed across Red Square in Moscow, and President Vladimir Putin was hoping to demonstrate courage and determination by presiding over the spectacle (Izvestiya, May 5).
Drone attack on the Kremlin
This display was underpinned by the shocking drone attack on the Kremlin in the early hours of May 3, with two explosions over the dome of the Senate palace (Meduza, May 4). The state flag atop the dome was not damaged, and the circumstances of this incident remain murky, with strong suspicions of it being a “false flag” operation aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian leadership (Novayagazeta.eu, May 3).
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov accused the United States of planning and ordering this “terrorist act,” which has triggered a new wave of speculation about the risks of nuclear escalation (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 4; Globalaffairs.ru, May 3). On May 5, Putin held a virtual meeting with the Russian Security Council, and the agenda was described as “some questions on the preparations for Victory Day celebrations” (Kremlin.ru, May 5).
Nuclear weapons are indeed disproportionate as a means of response to this low-yield drone attack, even if Russian propaganda describes it as an “assassination attempt” on Putin (Republic.ru, May 3). The attempt to respond in kind by striking Kyiv with a Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile granted a triumphant moment for Ukrainian air defense, as this air-launched missile was shot down by a United States–supplied MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system (The Insider, May 6).
This failure stands in contrast with the series of long-distance drone strikes carried out by Ukrainian forces on fuel depots in Sevastopol and deep into the Rostov and Krasnodar regions, disrupting Russian preparations for countering the looming Ukrainian counteroffensive (Forbes.ru, May 4). The explosion on a powder facility in Yekaterinburg region was caused by a forest fire, and the car bomb in Nizhny Novgorod region that wounded Zakhar Prilepin, a war-mongering blogger, has been officially blamed on a network of Ukrainian agents. And the increasing frequency and scope of these incidents aggravates the perception of deteriorating domestic security in Russia (Svoboda, May 6; Meduza, May 6).
Guests at the Victory Day parade
Putin sought to counter this gloom by staging the usual pompous V-Day parade, to which Kyrgyzstani President Sadyr Japarov and Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon were invited (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 3; Moskovsky komsomolets, May 5).
The presence of these guests of honor was meant to confirm the strength of Russian influence in Central Asia, where doubts in the value of economic cooperation with Russia are widespread and Moscow’s plan for a “gas alliance” with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has flopped (Gazeta.uz, April 28). Capital flight from Russia to Kazakhstan has increased four-fold in the first fiscal quarter of 2023, as Kazakhstan has become a key destination for thousands of Russians fleeing mobilization (RBC, May 5). Russian diplomacy suffered a shock when Kazakhstan voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly resolution on cooperation with the Council of Europe, which contains a paragraph condemning the aggression against Ukraine. As a result, Moscow requested a separate vote on just this paragraph, and, this time, Kazakhstan opted to abstain (Zakon.kz, May 2).
Armenia, another Russian ally, took a similar stance. Indeed, the profound disappointment in Yerevan regarding the unreliability of security ties with Moscow is driving the erosion of Russia’s positions in the South Caucasus (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 2). The recent four-day talks in Washington between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on resolving the smoldering conflict in Karabakh irked Moscow, which used to manipulate this protracted conflict to its own advantage (Kommersant, May 5). Also within the region, Georgia is painfully aware of heightened Russian pressure. Thus, while pro-Western views enjoy deep public support, the current Georgian Dream government is seeking to maximize benefits in abstaining from taking an explicit stance on the war in Ukraine (Russiancouncil.ru, May 5).
Degraded quality of arms and troops
The overall effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy maneuvering, for instance at the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Goa, India, depends directly on the course of combat operations in Ukraine, as many states in the Global South are monitoring for subtle shifts that can signify a breakdown in the current deadlock on the battlefield (Izvestiya, May 5).
It is obvious for every keen observer, including China, that the Russian army, which used to be held in such high regard, is severely degraded and relies increasingly on vintage Soviet arsenals (The Insider, May 5). The deteriorating quality of Russian troops is also apparent, and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s loud complaints about the meager supply and support from Moscow for his Wagner mercenaries have highlighted this growing issue (Topwar.ru, May 7).
Neither the rag-tag “Wagnerites” nor the rusty T-64 tanks (manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s in Kharkiv) appeared in the Red Square parade, where battalions of “show-troops” marched in perfect step preceding the heavy eight-wheel carriers equipped with Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are meant to present the ultimate symbol of power.
It is not the glory but rather the tragedy of the great victory gained in 1945 that now comes into sharper focus, as the senselessness of the heavy price paid for Putin’s war is gradually being internalized by millions of Russians, even if they remain numb to the sufferings of the Ukrainians.
The grim resignation to the prospect of a long war, which Putin sought to reinforce in Russian society by staging the habitual parade, is in fact undercut by the foreboding that the prospects of this war cannot possibly end with anything resembling a victory.