Yesterday Russia celebrated its main holiday, Victory Day—the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II. Victory Day has of course been celebrated since Soviet times, but upon taking power, Putin set out to revive the day’s significance, refashioning it to be a constant source of national pride for Russians. By focusing attention on the critical role played by the Soviet Union in WWII, Putin sought to get approval, by analogy, for his own efforts to raise the profile of modern Russia on the international stage. The massive military parades in Red Square, overseen by Putin and a coterie of visiting world leaders, were always meant to communicate both the military power and the political influence of Russia—and its proud President.
Yesterday, the desired effect was diminished. Vladimir Putin enjoyed the parade almost all alone, as no world leaders apart from Moldovan President Igor Dodon chose to come to the parade.
Putin’s Victory Day guest list has been steadily shrinking for the past few years. In 2010, when the world marked the 65th anniversary of the end of WWII, then-Prime Minister Putin had with him German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Hu Jintao, as well as the Presidents of Israel, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Croatia, Latvia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The militaries of the countries comprising the anti-Hitler coalition all participated in the parade.
Five years later, after the annexation of Crimea, with all Western leaders deciding to boycott the spectacle, Vladimir Putin, now once again Russia’s President, shifted his sights to new shores. President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro, the Cuban leader Raul Castro, President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi, as well as the dictators of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan all honored Putin with their visit to mark the 70th anniversary of victory.
Most post-Soviet countries celebrate the big round-figure anniversaries with more gusto. Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko didn’t come to Moscow in 2015, saying that he had to tend to his own country’s massive celebrations that year, at home in Minsk. Lukashenko however also chose to sit out last year, leaving Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev the sole guest attending. At least his attendance was noted by Russian media, and he was officially honored. Moldova’s Dodon didn’t even get the courtesy of any media mention this year. In the broadcasts, he looked as if he was just another one of Putin’s bodyguards.
To add insult to injury, yesterday’s weather was poor and the planned air show was cancelled, even after Moscow spent 90 million rubles ($1.5 million) on the cloud crackdown. (Russian officials not only crack down on opposition demonstrations, but on clouds too. The job is not being done by Putin’s brand new National Guard, but rather by his air force, which sprays liquid nitrogen into the air from its planes.) The cloud crackdown is the brainchild of former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, who first hit upon the idea to ensure sunny skies during Moscow Day celebrations, which fall on the first Saturday of September each year. The budget line item turned out to be a good opportunity for stealing from the state by padding costs, so Moscow new mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who has already handily outperformed Luzhkov when it comes to corruption, not only kept this tradition alive, but literally tripled it: these days, clouds are cleared three times a year: on Victory Day, on Moscow Day, and on Russia Day (in June). To get a sense of the scale of theft, consider that last year Moscow spent 450 million rubles ($7.5 million) on cloud control, while with this year’s budget constraints, the city will only spend 260 million rubles for the same three holidays. If the cloud control budget can be halved without blinking an eye, just imagine what the actual cost of the service runs…
International media like to portray Putin’s maneuvering in Ukraine and Syria as having wrested him a seat at the big boys’ table, with Russia sitting as a peer among international great powers. To a certain extent, that’s true: Moscow is now regularly consulted for cleaning up the very messes it helped to make in the first place. But the fact that it is consulted frequently masks a deeper truth: Russia is increasingly isolated. The next “round figure” Victory Day parade is in three years’ time. If present trends continue, Vladimir Putin may soon find himself in a Kim Jong-un-like situation, proudly obsessing over his military, all alone.