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reflections

May 10, 2007 | 02:00 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Putin's Jab at the West

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Though many former Soviet states celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the end of World War II on Wednesday, the largest Victory Day party took place in Russia's Red Square, where 7,000 military personnel marched in full uniform as Su-27s and MiG-29s flew maneuvers overhead. Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a nationally televised speech in which he congratulated the Russian people for having the courage and fortitude that "crushed the aggressor and stopped Nazism." Though it resembled speeches of the past, this year's address also included something new — an attempt to use the memory of victory to vilify the West. Victory Day is one of the largest holidays in Russia. The defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 legitimized the Soviet government as a global leader, and as a powerful force with which the rest of the world would have to reckon. But the fall of the Soviet Union made Victory Day bittersweet; it 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 it had received under Soviet leaders such as Josef Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev or Nikita Khrushchev. This changed in 2005, when Putin celebrated the 60th anniversary of Victory Day with a large military parade in Red Square, to which he invited world leaders such as Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Jacques Chirac and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. This was Putin's attempt to make clear that Russia was ready to reawaken to the world of global politics. Since then, Putin has reinforced this idea by conducting large-scale military exercises, consolidating the country's enormous energy wealth and cracking down on members of his own government in order to secure his party's power. Finally, on April 27, Putin announced in his annual state of the union address that he had unified most of the nation, and that Russia was once again becoming great. Though Putin might be consolidating power, he still lacks the legitimacy of Russia's post-World War II government. Despite the government's totalitarianism, the emotional victory over the Nazis gained it status in the minds of its people and in those of the rest of the world because the defeat of Germany symbolized moral victory over evil. The Soviet Union gained good standing in many places — but mainly among Russians themselves. This perception persists today, though the source of this legitimacy is something the West has never understood. Now that Russia is attempting to re-emerge, it must once again prove its legitimacy. In his Victory Day speech, Putin warned of "new threats" based on "the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionalism and diktat in the world as in the Third Reich" — a thinly veiled criticism of U.S. military action. As much as the United States and the former Soviet republic fought during the Cold War, the Soviets were never able to gain moral authority over the West. Now, Putin has implicitly equated the United States with the most extreme of all villains in the Russian mind: the Third Reich. This comparison might elude many Russians who see no similarities between the reviled Reich and an enemy that has never physically touched their territory. However, if Putin can successfully make this link in Russian minds — and in the minds of others — the emotion it stirs will give the Russian government an enormous force behind it and citizens that will follow it into any kind of battle against the West.

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