MOSCOW – A massive Russian military parade postponed by the coronavirus pandemic will roll through Red Square this week to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, even though Russia is still registering a steady rise in infections.
President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on holding the parade reflects not only his desire to put Russia's power on display but also to bolster patriotic sentiments a week before a constitutional referendum that could allow him to remain in office until 2036.
The Victory Day parade normally is held on May 9, the nation's most important secular holiday. This year's date of Wednesday, June 24, coincides with the day in 1945 when the first parade was held on Red Square after the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union and its allies.
The Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people in what it called the Great Patriotic War and the enormous suffering and sacrifice of that era has left a deep scar in Russia's psyche.
Victory Day is a rare event in the nation's divisive post-Soviet history that is revered by all political sides, and the Kremlin has used that sentiment to encourage patriotic pride and underline Russia’s role as a global power.
The show is particularly important this year for Putin. The Kremlin hopes it will help secure public support a week before the July 1 nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that effectively reset the clock on his tenure in office and will allow him to seek two more six-year terms if he chooses.
“For Putin, the parade has a symbolic meaning, a symbol that the epidemic is over and so the vote can be held,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based independent political analyst. “And even more importantly, Victory Day serves as a positive symbol of people's unification, economic mobilization, strong leadership and consolidation — the things that Putin wants to claim credit for.”
The plebiscite was initially set for April 22 but, like the parade, was postponed by the coronavirus outbreak. When the first signs of a slowdown in the contagion appeared, Putin rescheduled the vote for July 1, eager to consolidate his power before the economic fallout from the pandemic further eroded his popularity.
His approval rating plummeted to 59% in April, its lowest level in more than two decades, according to the Levada Center, the nation's top independent pollster.
“Three months later, the ratings will be lower as the economy is going downhill,” Oreshkin said. “It's essential to hold the vote right now.”
While the pandemic has shattered the Kremlin's hopes to get top world leaders to attend the parade, the heads of several ex-Soviet nations and Serbia's president are still scheduled to show up Wednesday. The celebration will feature 14,000 troops, about 300 military vehicles and 75 warplanes in a display of the country's military might.
Russian officials have insisted that all necessary precautions have been taken to protect the health of its troops, elderly veterans and foreign guests at the parade.
Russia has the world's third-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases after the United States and Brazil and still reports about 8,000 new infections a day. Its reported virus death toll is nearly 8,200, a number that experts say is much too low for a country with over 590,000 confirmed cases.
With this in mind, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has cautioned the public against coming to see the show. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also advised Moscow residents, who usually converge on central avenues to see the tanks and missiles roll by, to watch it on TV this time.
While the parade is politically important for the Kremlin, Putin's persistence in holding it despite the risks of contagion also reflects his strong personal preoccupation with World War II.
The 67-year-old Russian leader views the war from a deeply emotional angle, often invoking dramatic memories of his parents, Vladimir and Maria, and his brother Viktor, nicknamed Vitya, when the Nazis besieged his hometown of Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, for nearly 2 1/2 years.
“For my parents, the war meant the terrible ordeals of the Siege of Leningrad where my 2-year-old brother Vitya died,” Putin wrote in an article published in the U.S. journal The National Interest. ”It was the place where my mother miraculously managed to survive. My father, despite being exempt from active duty, volunteered to defend his hometown.”
The Kremlin has tapped that history to rally patriotism at home but has also regularly used it against foreign opponents.
For many years, Russian officials have chastised the West for the failure to condemn annual demonstrations in Estonia and Latvia honoring veterans of Waffen SS, as well as Ukraine's adulation for nationalist leaders who sided with the Nazis in the war.
Amid a bitter strain in relations with Poland, Putin this year zeroed in on Warsaw, denouncing its prewar leaders of colluding with Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Poland criticized Putin’s article as part of his “information war” against the West.
Causing outrage in Warsaw and the Baltics, Putin also staunchly defended a 1939 pact between Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler that carved up Poland and the Baltic states. World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, a week after the pact was signed. On Sept. 17, the Soviet Red Army rolled into Poland from the east.
Repeating a Soviet-era argument, Putin described the deal as an attempt by Stalin to buy time for strengthening the country's defenses, arguing that Moscow had no other choice after Britain and France stonewalled Soviet proposals for a military alliance. Nazi Germany broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Putin has pointed out that every seventh Soviet citizen was killed in the war, while the United Kingdom lost one out of every 127 and the United States lost one out of 320.
“The Soviet Union and the Red Army, no matter what anyone is trying to prove today, made the main and crucial contribution to the defeat of Nazism,” Putin wrote in The National Interest.