Europe Politics

Russia is holding a massive show of military might in Moscow, and it's crucial for Putin

Key Points
  • Russia holds its massive show of military might in Moscow on Wednesday June 24.
  • The event was rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • It comes before a nationwide vote on constitutional changes, aimed at legitimizing amendments that would allow Putin to run for further terms in office after 2024.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin looks on prior to the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.

Russia is holding its annual Victory Day parade in Moscow on Wednesday, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's capitulation in World War II.

As well as a day of national celebration, the parade allows Russia to show off the range of its military personnel and equipment to the world.  More than that, however, the event is seen as a way for President Vladimir Putin to cement Russian patriotism and his power base.

This year's parade comes during an unprecedented global health crisis, and the event had to be rescheduled from its original date, on May 9, to June 24.

Nonetheless, preparations for the parade have been taking place in Moscow and Russia's Ministry of Defense confirms that over 13,000 military personnel are taking part in the parade that will include 216 units of military equipment (ranging from tanks to armored vehicles to rocket launchers) and a fly past featuring 75 military aircraft, including fighter jets and helicopters.

Russia political analyst Anton Barbashin told CNBC why the Victory Day parade matters so much to the Kremlin.

"Victory over the Nazi Germany is by far the biggest and the most significant historical event for contemporary Russia. For the Kremlin it is the most effective way to unite diverse peoples of Russia, it is used to legitimize Kremlin's foreign policy aspirations and generally (the) Russian attitude towards great power status. In the past decade, its importance only increased as the Kremlin has been increasingly monopolizing its legacy," he told CNBC Tuesday.

A Mil Mi-8 helicopter flies over Moscow during the dress rehearsal of the Victory Day air show marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Stanislav Krasilnikov

Russian referendum

This year's parade would originally have come after a nationwide referendum that would have given the public a say (ostensibly) on changes to the Russian constitution. These would, among other things, enable Putin the freedom to run for further terms in office, potentially up to 2036, when his current term ends in 2024. Like the parade, however, the public vote was postponed and will now take place on July 1.

Barbashin noted that the June 24 parade was "supposed to be the grand finale of Putin's own 'victory year'."

"The original Victory Day was supposed to be a sort of a celebration with a high number of foreign leaders coming to Moscow, symbolically accepting Russia's new constitution," he said.

Parade formations before the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.

The public vote on constitutional amendments has been dismissed by political experts like Barbashin, who said that as the new constitution had effectively already been agreed by the Russian Parliament, the public vote was a purely "symbolic approval of Putin's prolonged rule that should legitimize Russia's new constitution for both domestic and international audiences."

Still, the parade is seen as a way to boost a sense of national pride and public support for Putin ahead of the vote, particularly at a time when his popularity ratings have ebbed due to the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Coronavirus distraction

Putin is seen to have taken a "hands off" approach to managing the crisis which has hit ordinary Russians and the economy hard; Russia has the third highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, with almost 600,000 cases to date. Holding the parade was seen by experts as a way to distract Russians from the crisis and lockdown measures in Moscow were lifted earlier in the month, feasibly with the forthcoming parade in mind.

An added sweetener came on Tuesday too when Putin announced more financial support measures for families, lowered taxes for the IT industry and raised income tax on higher earners.

Putin installs disinfection tunnel at residence to protect from Covid-19
Putin installs disinfection tunnel at residence to protect from Covid-19

Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, acknowledged that the Victory Day parade "is rightly a major, symbolically important holiday for the Russian people in that it represents one of the few, unambiguously positive accomplishments of the Soviet Union," but said the timing of the parade "does serve a clearly discernible electoral purpose."

"Currently, the damage to the economy and public health from the pandemic — and the government's uneven response — is clearly visible to most Russians and there are indicators it is sapping public support for Putin. The Victory Day parade is an impressive spectacle, a visible demonstration of Russian military power designed to invoke both national pride and respect for Putin's re-establishment of a 'strong' Russia, which will circumvent concerns about Putin's management of the domestic economy."

Sukhoi Su-34, Sukhoi Su-35S and Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets of Lipetsk Aviation Centre fly in formation over Moscow during the dress rehearsal of the Victory Day air show.
Sergei Fadeichev

In normal times, Russia would use the parade as an opportunity to invite world leaders to Russia to attend the event and to impress as it showcases Russia's military might.

The coronavirus outbreak has put paid to that this year, however, and there is a slimmed down guest list. Russia's Ministry of Defense says 13 foreign state officials will attend the parade, mostly hailing from former Soviet states and nations allied with Russia, with defense ministers from Armenia, Azerbaijan and India attending the event, among others, and the presidents of Belarus and Serbia. Putin was seen greeting dignitaries with handshakes earlier Wednesday.

Western leaders including President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been invited to the event but a number canceled their attendance due to the pandemic, and rescheduling of the parade.

T-90M tanks and MSTA-SM self-propelled howitzers are pictured ahead of the dress rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Peter Kovalev

Barbashin said the domestic mood among the public, meanwhile, is generally far from celebratory, with the majority of Russian regions still experiencing spikes in new coronavirus cases and the economic downturn caused by the outbreak.

The independent Levada Center regularly surveys Russian adults on their opinion toward the country's leaders, Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. A telephone survey in late May of 1,623 adults showed that 59% approved of Putin's actions as president, while 34% disapproved. In February this year, as the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to emerge in Europe, in Italy, Putin's approval ratings stood at 69%.

Verisk Maplecroft's McDowell noted that Putin's announcement Tuesday of more support measures for Russian citizens were "designed to combat the impression that the Kremlin is primarily interested in protecting the economic 'oligarchy' rather than 'ordinary' Russians. Whether it will work remains to be seen."