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Deconstructing Victory Day

by Mark Galeotti May 10, 2014

Photo source: kremlin.ru

What can one learn from this year’s Victory Day extravaganza, marking the 69th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany? It is, of course, a cheap and shoddy trick to try and extrapolate broad trends from a single event. I am, of course, about to do just that.

First of all, this was touted as the biggest parade since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991: 11,000 troops from every arm of service, 149 tanks and other vehicles and 69 helicopters and warplanes. This was, perhaps, only to expected. Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, national glory and Russia’s historic mission—whatever that may be—has become an increasingly central aspect of his legitimating strategy.

Secondly, it is worth noting the composition of the parade. The usual point of interest amongst military intelligence specialists and amateur tank-spotters is the hardware. As is traditional, along with the usual fixtures of such parades, such as the T-90A tanks, BTR-80 personnel carriers and Topol-M nuclear missiles, there were some new entries to the ranks: Khrizantema-S tank destroyers, KamAZ-63968 Typhoon carriers and Tor-M2U anti-aircraft missile systems.

Proof enough of Russia’s determined commitment to military re-armament. But the real novelty was the prominence given to certain particular units, notably Spetsnaz special forces and armed officers of MChS, the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Contrary to some reports, this was not the first time Spetsnaz from the 16th Brigade have marched, although placing them in the same parade as the 382nd Independent Naval Infantry Battalion from the Black Sea Fleet (parading for the first time) was perhaps an unsubtle reminder of their role as the “Little Green Men” of the Crimean operation, especially as the VSS Vintorez silenced sniper rifles in the hands of the Spetsnaz were the weapons which, more than any others, proved that these insignia-less soldiers were indeed Russian troops rather than mercenaries or volunteers.

This parade demonstrates Russia’s capacity to span the range of military operations, from the kind of conventional, high-tempo industrial war epitomized by the tank and the long-range missile, to the hybrid covert/deniable political-military struggle currently being waged in Ukraine

Perhaps more to the point, this parade could be said to demonstrate Russia’s capacity to span the range of military operations, from the kind of conventional, high-tempo industrial war epitomized by the tank and the long-range missile, to the hybrid covert/deniable political-military struggle currently being waged in Ukraine. Many of the units marching through Red Square actually speak to these kinds of low-intensity missions. The Spetsnaz, Naval Infantry (the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Independent Guards ‘Biaystok’ Marine Brigade was also present) and the Airborne (represented by the 98th Guards Airborne Division) are the obvious tip of the spear. However, these missions also often require forces able to secure borders (we saw troops from the FSB’s Moscow Border Guards Institute), fight insurgents (the 1st Independent ‘Felix Dzerzhinsky’ Special Designation Division of the MVD Interior Troops), secure supply lines (29th and 38th Independent Railway Troops Brigades) and even fulfill combined security and emergency relief missions (MChS Civil Defense Forces).

Third, let us consider Putin. Despite suggestions that he would miss the event and spend the day in Crimea, he was present, delivering the usual rousing paean to Russian martial glories and historical endeavors, when the “iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery.” Afterwards, though, he did fly post-haste to Sevastopol, where he was able to make a second and rather more political speech.

In Moscow, he made no explicit mention of the Ukrainian emergency; in Sevastopol, he talked enthusiastically about “the return of Crimea and Sevastopol to their native land,” that 2014 was “the year in which the peoples here expressed their firm desire to be together with Russia. In this decision they have shown that they remain true to the historic truth and our forefathers’ memory.”

This is, after all, the balance he has to strike. The outside world nowadays sees Putin the Warfighter, the aggressive, even imperialist figure willing to let Ukraine burn so long as it forces Kiev to acknowledge Russian hegemony. However, in Russia while the Crimean annexation has been overwhelmingly popular, and there is at present no meaningful dismay at the wider policy over Ukraine, this is to a considerable extent because the former was a bloodless victory and the latter heavily misrepresented in the official media. In its self-contained world, Putin the Statebuilder is obviously concerned about the plight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians but is, of course, doing nothing to aggravate the situation, and instead is keen to see a negotiated peace.

There is no evidence to suggest Russians are eager for war, for young men coming home in body bags or zinc boxes.

It would be easy to characterize simply as official mendacity, and that is certainly part of it. But it is important to consider just why Putin was not delivering blood-curdling threats from Red Square: there is no evidence to suggest Russians are eager for war, for young men coming home in body bags or zinc boxes. Putin may feel that “This is the holiday when the invincible power of patriotism triumphs, when we all feel especially acutely what it means to be loyal to our homeland and how important it is to defend our country’s interests.” Nonetheless, he understands the limitations of this patriotism today and knows how far he can and cannot push it.

Just as one of his war-winning innovations in the Second Chechen War was to “Chechenize” it, to rely on local militias and former guerrillas to take the battle to the rebels, even if that meant in effect delivering the country to the Kadyrovs, Akhmad and Ramzan, so too he is fighting his proxy war in eastern Ukraine on the cheap and nasty, through local agents and miscellaneous mercenaries and volunteers. This will lead to long-term security challenges in eastern Ukraine in the future and in part has been done precisely to make it difficult for the West to respond, but in my opinion it is also because Putin, a surprisingly cautious politician, does not believe Russians are ready for a war.

Finally, the upsurge in patriotism that is always a feature of Victory Day—Den’ pobedy—remains an essentially upbeat, celebratory phenomenon. I was last in Moscow for a Victory Day three years ago and for all that some observers have claimed to have scented either a heightened nationalism or even a degree of xenophobia in the air, I cannot say I felt the same. Instead, this remains an inclusive, cheerful event: a family day out, a chance to wear a WW2-style pilotka side-cap, sport an orange-and-black ribbon, hand a flower to one of the dwindling band of veterans and ooh and aah at the fireworks. The cops are in their Sunday best, the out-of-towners are gawping at the big city and the cafes and restaurants are doing a roaring trade, whether they sell Russian blinies, American burgers or Japanese sushi. This is, actually, quite a positive, even inclusive day.

To be sure, no one is talking about US Lend-Lease assistance or the dogged resistance of the British. And no one questions the narrative that this was a war of liberation from the Nazis (which it was) and considers how far it was also Stalin’s war of conquest in eastern and central Europe (which it also was). But the bones of twenty million dead build quite a platform from which to overlook the inconveniences of history, and every country’s narratives are comfortingly selective. But the point is that this is not a day on which a foreigner needs to feel excluded, much less the target of hostility. Russians may—do—betray much casual racism at times, but I do not see any popular anti-Americanism, let along generalized xenophobia, even on such a symbolically-potent day.

Victory Day—and indeed, the whole campaign to take the Crimea, a frighteningly expensive bit of crowd-pleasing theatre—can be seen as part of Putin’s increasing dependence on pageantry and nationalism to legitimate a regime beginning to run out of ideas, energy and, most worrying of all, money.

I do not, of course, believe for a minute that all or any of these subtexts were deliberately encoded within the parade. The attention paid to the MChS forces is as likely simply to reflect the fact that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was formerly the Emergencies Minister, while Putin is hardly the first politician to tailor his speech to his audience. However, to round up my observations, Victory Day—and indeed, the whole campaign to take the Crimea, a frighteningly expensive bit of crowd-pleasing theatre—can be seen as part of Putin’s increasing dependence on pageantry and nationalism to legitimate a regime beginning to run out of ideas, energy and, most worrying of all, money. Of course, the trouble is that each spectacle, whether Sochi or Sevastopol, needs to outshine the last. Where does he go from here?

But while Russia undoubtedly has built capacities well-suited to modern hybrid warfare (including a compliant media and network of useful idiots abroad), we should not assume that this necessarily translates into more and bigger foreign adventures. Russians themselves and in the main patriots, willing to listen to Putin’s narrative of their cultural exceptionalism, accepting of a duty to protect their kin whom geopolitics stranded in neighboring countries, but this does not translate into an uncritical appetite for war and hardship. Yes, these are the descendants of the defenders of Stalingrad and Leningrad, and any existential threat to their Motherland would no doubt trigger a resolute response. But they are also the generation of consumerism, cynicism and holidays abroad. Putin may be willing to pledge their blood to the cause of empire, but I find it hard to believe most Russians would share that enthusiasm. Victory Day, after all, is a day of celebration, as much as anything else that a past generation suffered so that the present generation doesn’t have to. And on some level, I think Putin realizes this.