Flexing Muscles in Moscow Russia Displays its Military Pomp on Red Square

For the first time since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has put on an arms parade to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. Russians are impressed with the military show of strength, but in Eastern Europe the parade has reawakened old fears.

By in Moscow


In the days running up to the parade, things in Moscow looked a bit strange. Tanks rolled down the streets in the direction of Red Square while fighter jets flew over the office blocks in the heart of the Russian capital. To Western observers, these scenes were anachronistic. If it weren’t for the hundreds of billboards and luxury boutiques, it would almost seem as if things had jumped back in time to the Soviet Union in 1990.

That was when the last parade with military hardware took place -- almost 18 years ago. Back then, Moscow was gray and the Soviet Union was bankrupt.

During the three dress rehearsals for the victory parade, well dressed passers-by craned their necks to get a look at the T-90 tanks, while people sitting at pavement cafes were stunned and sometimes shocked to see Sukhoi fighter jets flying 400 meters above their heads.

When 8,000 soldiers and officers in new uniforms, created by star fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin, marched in front of the Kremlin, the assembled government elite and the last World War II veterans on Friday morning, it seemed as if Russia was searching for its future in the past. European diplomats spoke privately of "the wrong signal."

In reality, Western capitals have no need to panic because of the saber rattling on Red Square. After all, France celebrates its Bastille Day every year with a military parade including tanks on the Champs Elysees and fighter aircraft flying across the Arc de Triomphe. Nations who once played a far greater role on the world stage need to bask in the glory of historical uniforms, machine guns and bombast. It eases the nagging pain of lost territories and influence.

It will take a while to judge if Russia did itself any favors in terms of foreign policy. Its biggest problem is not the West, but its relationship with the countries of the former Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe and the states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poland and tiny Lithuania are now blocking the start of negotiations between Russia and the European Union on a new partnership agreement, while Georgia has been delaying Russia's long overdue accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

And it is in these countries that parades that ape the style of the former Communist power are viewed with horror. The old formula, whereby Russia was respected as well as feared, will not work in the future. In countries such as Georgia, the show of strength in Moscow will probably increase rather than decrease the determination to seek protection by joining the Western defence alliance NATO.

But most Russians approved of the demonstration of military strength. According to a survey by research organization Ziom, 70 percent of those questioned thought it was "very good" or "good" that military hardware was once again on display. After the country's economic and social decline and its foreign policy humiliations in the 1990s -- when Russia had to look on powerlessly as NATO expanded up to its borders -- the country is basking in the feeling best summed up by the phrase: "We're back."

Only a small number of liberal politicians and civil rights activists have voiced criticism. "For a country that wants to develop peacefully, this is totally superfluous," commented civil rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. "Who are we flexing our muscles for? Georgia. It's so obvious our army is superior to Georgia's. Or the West? But we claim that we want to build up a partnership with the West."

New Uniforms, Old Weapons

For the 63rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, there were not only new uniforms to marvel at on Red Square, but newly choreographed marches and a new president. Dmitry Medvedev, who has only been in office for two days, gazed statesman-like at the proceedings from the grandstand.

The weapon systems on show, however, were old. A voice over a loudspeaker hailed the S-300 anti-missile system as the "best in the world." The SU-24 fighter jets, which flew over the Kremlin, have been in operation for 30 years and the strategic bomber, the Tu-160, was delivered to the air force for the first time in 1981.

So far, only a handful of Russia's newest fighter jets, the Su-34, have even been supplied to the air force. According to aviation expert Ruslan Puchow, "Many of the weapon systems which were on display are more often sold abroad than given to our army." That is why the respected business newspaper Vedomosti ran a story on the parade with the derisive headline "Parade for Export."

Comments from Washington were particularly sneering, if not entirely inaccurate. Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, derided the Moscow military parade in advance: "If they wish to take out their old equipment and take it for a spin and check it out, they're more than welcome to do so."

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