February 16, 2008

February 16, 2008 | Commentary on Russia

Russia's deja vu parade

As Yogi Berra once said, "This is deja vu all over again." On May 9, heavy military equipment will once again roll down Moscow's Red Square for the Victory Day military parade. Tanks, missiles, and 6,000 troops will be joined overhead by fighter aircraft and military helicopters. The last time Moscow saw such a display of military hardware was November 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The parade is designed to generate nostalgia among the Russian people and to signal the U.S., NATO members and Russia's neighbors that Russia's power is back. It also illustrates President Vladimir Putin's emphasis on the military and security services at the expense of modern, democratic institutions.

Mr. Putin has justified Russia's rebuilding of its military muscle in a speech to the State Council, claiming the new arms race has been triggered "by the world's most developed countries" - a clear reference to the United States. In response to this threat, the Kremlin plans to deploy new weapons claimed to be equal or better than its Western equivalents. Also, research and development in revolutionary biological, nano- and information technologies with military applications will continue.

President Putin's government is reaffirming the central role that the military and the security services play as pillars of the Russian state. This is yet another indication from the Kremlin that the so-called "power" ministries and agencies are the bedrocks of the Russian Federation - as opposed to democracy, a multiparty system, free media, fair elections, and the separation of powers.

The parade is a signal to the world and to the Russian people that the armed forces matter again, after a decade or so of decay. Strategically, the display of newly built weapon systems - like the road-mobile Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), S-300 mobile long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), bombers and fighters - are intended to show that the Russian military is resurging. To the Russian people, the parade will convey a sense of national pride and security in the face of external threats, and that Russia is a great power again. This is a hallmark of Mr. Putin's new Russia and a revival of the Soviet and czarist tradition of showing off the country's military prowess.

In essence, the parade is another sign Russia is going "back to the future." It wants to return the military - as well as other instruments of state power, from oil and gas exports to secret police and a subservient judiciary - to the forefront in 21st century Russian foreign policy.

Mr. Putin said two years ago that the Soviet collapse was "the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century." Clearly, the Soviet Union was Mr. Putin's country. During his career as a KGB officer, he cultivated a sense of duty and loyalty to the state (and to his "guild" of intelligence officers, many of whom now rule Russia).

Since becoming president, his nostalgia for the Soviet past has manifested in the readoption of symbols from the communist period. When that era ended, President Boris Yeltsin resurrected national symbols from the czarist period, including the tricolor Russian national flag, the imperial double-headed eagle on the state coat of arms, and the 19th century-style gala uniforms of the Kremlin guard.

These symbols have been complemented by the communist Red Star, which appears on military aircraft; the readoption of Josef Stalin's Soviet anthem tune as Russia's anthem; the use of "comrade" as a form of address within the military services; and the placement of a bronze bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky in the courtyard of the Interior Ministry in Moscow. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of Lenin's dreaded secret police, the Cheka, and was responsible for arresting, exiling, torturing and executing countless victims. His successors in the secret services still commemorate Dec. 20 as Chekist Day, recalling the day in 1917 when the "Iron Felix" founded the Cheka, the predecessor of Stalin's NKVD, the KGB and today's FSB.

The coexistence of czarist and Soviet symbols is a way to connect Russia's present and past. According to a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, the use of both symbols means that "the continuity of all Russian history is restored and demonstrated." The actions of Mr. Putin's government show this continuity is not limited to symbols. Mr. Putin also demonstrates his intent to restore the state's historically central role in managing the politics, media and economy in Russia.

The public display of Russia's military might reaffirms the power of that centuries-old Eurasian leviathan, the Russian state. Russia's resurgence is not limited to military parades, but includes military deployments and maneuvers, as well as procurement of weapon systems. Last year, Mr. Putin ordered regular patrols of strategic bombers resumed deep into the Atlantic and Pacific airspace. The Strategic Missile Forces are deploying silo-based and mobile ICBMs. Moreover, Jan. 21-23, for the first time in 15 years, the Russian Navy staged a large-scale exercise in the Bay of Biscay, including its aircraft carrier and strategic bombers together with air-refueling tankers and airborne early-warning aircraft.

The announced rearmament, the parade, global maneuvers and new weapon systems are designed to make others respect Russia as well as deter NATO and the United States, which is viewed by Mr. Putin as a hegemonic superpower seeking to harm Russia.

The fanfare communicates Russia's intentions to change the global "correlation of forces" in its favor and signals Russia's neighbors to do its bidding and not challenge its security or interests.

Russia is back on the world stage with all the attributes of power, including wealth and military might, for all to see. The next administration will have its hands full dealing with resurgent Moscow.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Washington Times