President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s military strength on display Wednesday in a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany, braving the coronavirus pandemic ahead of a referendum that may allow him to rule until 2036.
The spread of the virus forced Putin to delay his annual May 9 Victory Day celebration on Moscow’s Red Square, which this year featured 14,000 troops and weaponry including tanks, air-defence systems and nuclear-missile launchers, as well as a fly-past by Russia’s air force. Several invited leaders stayed away because of the continuing threat from Covid-19.
“We will always remember that it was the Soviet people who crushed Nazism,” Putin said in a speech. “We can’t even imagine what the world would have become if the Red Army hadn’t come to its defence.”
The commemoration of what’s known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, in which 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union died, is traditionally an opportunity to rouse the nation. It took place a week before the July 1 referendum on constitutional changes backed by the Kremlin. They include a measure that would allow Putin to seek two more six-year terms once the current one, his fourth, ends in 2024.
Putin, 67, has said the changes already endorsed by Russia’s parliament and Constitutional Court will only take effect if a majority of people support them in the referendum. While there’s little doubt the Kremlin will secure approval for the measures, officials are eager to ensure a high turnout for the vote.
Putin has attached particular importance to this year’s anniversary, inviting leaders of Western wartime allies to join him in Moscow even as they continue to sanction Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron accepted Putin’s invitation to attend on May 9 before the pandemic upended Russia’s plans.
While Putin has said Russia passed the peak of the epidemic, the country is still reporting more than 7,000 new daily infections, though new cases in Moscow declined to about 800 Wednesday from some 1,000 in recent days. About 30 cities have either suspended plans to stage local World War II parades or banned spectators, citing risks to public health.
Only about 10 foreign leaders joined Putin for the parade, mostly from ex-Soviet states as well as the heads of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic cancelled plans to come at the last minute, saying the presidential plane had broken down, and Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov skipped the parade despite being in Moscow after two members of his delegation tested positive for the virus, Russian state news service RIA Novosti reported.
The leaders of China, France, Israel, Japan and the Czech Republic were among those who declined to come. Russia didn’t invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy amid the continued dispute over Crimea and the war involving Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin advised the capital’s residents to stay home to watch the parade, he didn’t ban spectators from the streets. Large-scale rehearsals by Russia’s military took place in the run-up to the commemoration.
On the stands in Red Square, invited guests were seated apart from each other to reduce any infection risks. These measures didn’t apply to VIPs, including foreign dignitaries sitting close to Putin at the parade. Nearly 80 veterans who were selected to join the Russian leader were isolated in a resort outside Moscow for 14 days to protect him from possible exposure to the deadly pathogen.
None of the thousands of soldiers marching in Red Square wore masks.
by Henry Meyer & Stepan Kravchenko, Bloomberg