Putin on pa­rade

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

This May’s pa­rade in Moscow to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II prom­ises to be the great­est Victory Day cel­e­bra­tion since the Soviet Union’s col­lapse. Some 16,000 sol­diers, 200 ar­moured ve­hi­cles, and 150 planes and he­li­copters are set to pass through and over Red Square. It will be a scene that would eas­ily have been familiar to Soviet lead­ers like Leonid Brezh­nev and Nikita Khrushchev, tak­ing the salute atop Lenin’s tomb.

Yet, though Rus­sia’s WWII al­lies were from Europe and North Amer­ica, no West­ern lead­ers will at­tend the com­mem­o­ra­tion – a re­flec­tion of the West’s dis­ap­proval of Putin’s in­va­sion of Ukraine and an­nex­a­tion of Crimea. In­stead, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s high-pro­file guests will in­clude the lead­ers of China, In­dia, and North Korea, un­der­scor­ing just how few friends Rus­sia has th­ese days.

The sur­real na­ture of this gath­er­ing re­flects the in­creas­ingly bizarre na­ture of Putin’s regime. In­deed, watch­ing Rus­sia nowa­days is like watch­ing the last in­stall­ment of the X-Men film fran­chise, “Days of Fu­ture Past.” Just as the X-Men join forces with their younger selves to save mankind’s fu­ture, to­day’s Krem­lin is hark­ing back to Rus­sia’s Soviet past in what it sees as a con­tem­po­rary sur­vival.

Crit­i­cal to this strat­egy is pro­pa­ganda con­flat­ing the West to­day with the Ger­mans who in­vaded Rus­sia in 1941, while paint­ing Ukrainian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials as “fas­cists” and “neo-Nazis.” The Krem­lin has re­lied on such claims, to­gether with the sup­posed need to de­fend Rus­sians abroad, to jus­tify its ag­gres­sion against Ukraine. In Putin’s speech fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, he charged that the West’s re­fusal “to en­gage in dia­logue” left Rus­sia with no choice. “We are con­stantly propos­ing co­op­er­a­tion on all key is­sues,” he de­clared. “We want to strengthen our level of trust and for our re­la­tions to be equal, open, and fair. But we saw no re­cip­ro­cal steps.”

A month later, Putin re­in­forced this im­age of Rus­sians as the morally su­pe­rior vic­tims of a cruel and un­com­pro­mis­ing West. “We are less prag­matic than other peo­ple, less cal­cu­lat­ing,” he as­serted, be­fore adding that Rus­sia’s “great­ness” and “vast size” means “we have a more gen­er­ous heart.”

It is not dif­fi­cult to see the par­al­lels be­tween Putin’s ap­proach and that of Joseph Stalin, who de­clared at the start of WWII that the “en­emy” aims to de­stroy Rus­sia’s “na­tional cul­ture,” to “Ger­man­ise” its peo­ple, and “con­vert them into slaves.” The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that the Nazi Wehrma­cht ac­tu­ally in­vaded the Soviet Union, whereas Ukraine sim­ply wanted to de­cide its own fu­ture.

With­out de­fend­ing Stalin, one must recog­nise the im­mense Soviet con­tri­bu­tion –




coun­try’s in­clud­ing the lives of 26 mln cit­i­zens – to the Al­lied victory in WWII. At the time, the mil­i­tary pa­rade in Red Square – fea­tur­ing al­most 35,000 troops, up to 1,900 pieces of mil­i­tary equip­ment, and a 1,400-man orches­tra – was a well-de­served pageant. The Soviet lead­er­ship spared no cost in stag­ing its mil­i­tary dis­plays, which, in the ab­sence of an ex­ter­nal mil­i­tary threat, be­came an im­por­tant ve­hi­cle for ral­ly­ing na­tional unity.

Af­ter the Soviet Union’s col­lapse, Rus­sia, no longer a su­per­power, put its mil­i­tary spec­ta­cles on ice. But in 2005, to com­mem­o­rate the 60th an­niver­sary of the end of WWII, Putin held a ma­jor pa­rade – one that West­ern lead­ers, be­liev­ing that Rus­sia might have a Euro­pean fu­ture, did at­tend.

The tone of this year’s Victory Day com­mem­o­ra­tions is far less an­tic­i­pa­tory. How can one cel­e­brate the end of a war at a time when the descen­dants of those who fought it (un­doubt­edly driven by the hope that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would live in peace) are killing one an­other in a bru­tal lit­tle war in eastern Ukraine? What is the point of grandiose fire­works dis­plays amid the fir­ing of real how­itzers and rock­ets?

The his­to­rian Robert Pax­ton be­lieved that one could tell much about a coun­try by its pa­rades. His 1966 book ‘Pa­rades and Pol­i­tics at Vichy’ de­scribes how Philippe Pé­tain, as Chief of State of Vichy France, used pageantry, re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics, and, of course, a part­ner­ship with Adolf Hitler to dupe his de­feated coun­try into be­liev­ing that it still mat­tered in the world. The Vichy state’s brand of au­thor­i­tar­ian tra­di­tion­al­ism li­onised fam­ily and fa­ther­land, with Pé­tain, a for­mer mil­i­tary com­man­der, serv­ing as a kind of mil­i­tary king, ex­alted on the tri­bune.

The par­al­lels with Putin’s Rus­sia are clear. Putin views him­self as a new czar. His KGB back­ground dic­tates his lead­er­ship style, which in­cludes the abo­li­tion of free and fair elec­tions, the per­se­cu­tion of op­po­nents, and the pro­mo­tion of con­ser­va­tive val­ues that he, like Pé­tain be­fore him, jux­ta­poses with the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of an “immoral” and “deca­dent” West.

Re­ly­ing on this ap­proach, Putin has built al­liances with the likes of Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and Egypt’s mil­i­tary ruler Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi. China, the world’s sec­ond largest econ­omy, is a use­ful ad­di­tion to this col­lec­tion of friendly anti-demo­cratic states, as it has its own strate­gic griev­ances with the West.

Un­like China, how­ever, Rus­sia is not a ris­ing su­per­power. Putin may try to por­tray his ac­tions in Ukraine as a fight against fas­cism. But it is re­ally a fight for rel­e­vance – a fight he will never win. No mat­ter how grand the pa­rade, he can­not hide the truth: Rus­sia’s days as a su­per­power are in the past. Putin’s pa­tri­o­tism, like Pé­tain’s, is that of the van­quished.

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