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May 8, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

7 mins read

Victory Day: Showing Strength at a Time of Weakness

A woman in Moscow on May 7 walks past a billboard extolling 70 years since the victory over Nazi Germany and the end of World War II.
(SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images)
  • Russia's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany will culminate in one of the largest military parades in Russian history.
  • Most of the world leaders invited to this year's celebrations declined the invitation.
  • The parade comes as Russia faces economic and political crises and animosity over the conflict in Ukraine.
  • Russia will use the parade to emphasize its new alliances and to display its military might.

Victory Day is one of Russia's largest holidays. Russia does not refer to the war as "World War II" or "the Second World War," but as "the Great Patriotic War," and Russians deeply believe in that phraseology. The Great Patriotic War represents the Soviet Union's greatest moment of glory and highest sacrifice, and its end was the Russians' greatest victory. The Soviet Union rose out of a disastrous economy and a series of famines to face and defeat an invasion by what was then Europe's best army. The war touched every Russian family. The Soviet Union lost nearly 15 percent of its population — more than any other nation — in the war. This past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin shared a rare personal account of how his family fared in the war; his father was wounded during the Siege of Leningrad, and his brother died of diphtheria at an orphanage.

The Soviet Union (and now Russia) preserved the pride of the Great Patriotic War for generations by continually releasing new books and films. Reminders of the war are seen in the designation of "Hero Cities" to cities that illustrated mass heroism during the war, such as Kiev, Volgograd (then Stalingrad) and others. War memorials and fallen soldiers' graves were — and still are — prominent features in nearly every town in Russia. While monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were pulled down, war monuments were preserved, serving as a powerful source to inspire moral strength and to fuel nationalism.

The first Victory Day celebration was in June 1945, just a month after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Troops returned from the front to take part in the celebration, a military parade on Red Square. A documentary of the first parade was shown throughout the Soviet period. Jubilee celebrations were then held in 1965, 1985, 1990, 1995 and this year. The jubilee celebrations traditionally brought a deluge of world leaders to Moscow. During the 1995 jubilee, for example, most of Moscow was shut down while Russian President Boris Yeltsin hosted world leaders. Yeltsin was even accused of caring more about mingling with foreign leaders than celebrating with the Russian people, just a piece of the growing dissatisfaction with Yeltsin.

Changing Tones

In 2005, Putin used the 60th anniversary of Victory Day as a rallying point for the Russian people, as if calling them to action. At the time, Russia was embroiled in a nasty war in Chechnya, and peripheral states were distancing themselves from Russia. A mere year earlier, NATO expanded into the former Soviet Baltic states, and the Orange Revolution began in Ukraine. Putin hosted most Western leaders for the celebration, including U.S. President George W. Bush, though Bush sandwiched his trip to Moscow between visits to U.S.-friendly former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states.

In 2010, the 65th anniversary, the tone of the celebrations shifted again. Russian power appeared to be on the rise.

The tone of that Victory Day celebration, however, was markedly different. In Putin's speech, he thanked the Western allies for their "assistance" during the war but said ultimately it was the bravery of the Russian and Soviet people that led to victory. He also pointed out that Russia and its borderlands were united by the agony they suffered in the war more so than other countries. Drumming up nationalist sentiment, the Kremlin organized celebratory activities across Russia — not just in the large cities but also in villages and small towns. Putin made the day about the Russian people, not an event for only world leaders.

In 2010, the 65th anniversary, the tone of the celebrations shifted again. Though not a jubilee year, the parade was the largest Russian military parade since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia used the commemorations not only to show off its might but also to promote the idea that Russia is an integral part of the European system. For the first time, foreign troops marched alongside Russian soldiers, not long after Russia had gone to war with Georgia in 2008 and had a string of natural gas cutoffs to Europe. And though Europe was wary of Russia's growing influence, most Western leaders — even from Poland and the Baltics — still showed up in Moscow. At the time, Russian power appeared to be on the rise.

Victory Day's 70th Jubilee

But this year's landmark celebration is again starkly different from those in decades past. A perfect storm of crises is isolating and weakening Russia. Over the past year, Russia has failed to prevent Ukraine from forming a pro-Western government, and its means of influence in the eastern part of the country are weak. The Russian economy is sliding into its second recession in six years because of sanctions from the West and low oil prices. Confidence in the government, both from the Russian people and within the Kremlin, is also starting to crack.

Though this is a jubilee year, most of Moscow's allies from the war will not attend the festivities. In all, the Kremlin issued 68 invitations to leaders around the world, and only 30 leaders accepted, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Most of the Western leaders will not attend, citing Russia's conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some leaders initially accepted but changed their minds to avoid domestic repercussions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will, however, attend the wreath laying the day after the parade. Merkel is the primary negotiator between Kiev and Moscow, as well as Moscow and the West, and her attendance at the wreath laying illustrates Berlin's continuing role as mediator.

Countries attending Russia's Victory Day celebrations.

In response, the Kremlin dismissed the rejections, instead focusing on Russia's budding alternative friendships, such as its relations with China. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is bringing the largest foreign delegation to Moscow, including defense, economic, energy and financial teams. Xi's attendance is in preparation for Putin's visit for China's own Victory Day celebrations in September as well. So while the West isolates Russia, Moscow will emphasize connection to the East through large energy, defense and investment deals.

A Display of Strength

Still, the tone of Putin's speech at this jubilee will be important. Russian power is not growing as it used to. Russia is, in fact, surrounded by serious problems both at home and in its periphery.

So this year Russia is making clear it is not weak or broken, in spite of its many trials, conveying it is still a major military power. Apart from being a show of conventional military power as Russian armed forces units march across Red Square, this year's parade will highlight the achievements of the Russian defense industry.

An array of newly developed fighting vehicles will be stealing the show. The T-14 Armata main battle tank will be in the lead, but the Kurganets-25 infantry fighting vehicle and the Koalitsiya self-propelled artillery system will also be on display, among others. Unveiling these vehicles not only introduces the platforms but also broadcasts a clear signal on its ambitions to reform and modernize the entire Russian military.

The Russian armed forces are going through a number of changes, including doctrine updates, personnel restructuring in the army and the adoption of a wide range of newly developed technologies. These changes are necessary for the Russian military to maintain its relevance and to bolster the Russian position in Ukraine and against NATO.

Such a parade paints the image of Russia as a massive military power, developing the first next-generation main battle tank amid an overhaul of military equipment that will change the face of Russian forces on land, in the seas and in the air. However, under the current economic duress, Russia's military ambitions may prove to be unrealistic or at least unsustainable. For now at least, the Kremlin is trying to show that even if the country is weaker than in previous years, it can still rally when needed, as in the 1930s.

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