There can hardly be a more direct connection between military history and current affairs than over the celebration of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day in Russia on May 9. Vladimir Putin attempted to use the huge commemorations to promote the Russian armed forces, criticize the United States, sabre-rattle against Ukraine, cement alliances with rivals and opponents of the West, and generally to stoke up Russian hyper-nationalism.
The “Great Patriotic War,” as it’s called in Russia, saw the deaths of up to 27 million Russians, so it’s hardly surprising that the country makes a great deal of its victory over Nazism every May. Yet this year natural patriotism spilt over into the kind of xenophobic nationalism in which Putin so specializes. After the briefest of references to the fact that the Soviet Union had allies such as America and Britain during World War Two, he stated that “In the past decades we have seen attempts to create a unipolar world,” and that as a result of American foreign policy, “The principle of international co-operation has been neglected.” This from the man who has recently annexed the Crimea and sent troops and weaponry into eastern Ukraine, with the result that over 6,100 people have been killed. (Several of the units on display in Red Square had been recently fighting inside Ukraine.)
Of course one part of Putin’s narrative that doesn’t get mentioned was the inconvenient fact that between the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Stalin’s Russia was an all-too trusting ally of Nazi Germany.
As a result of Russia’s destabilization of independent, sovereign Ukraine, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States have boycotted these Moscow ceremonies, so Putin instead was left standing with Raúl Castro of Cuba, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, the truly repulsive Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and President Xi Jinping of China. The defeat of Fascism was thus ironically enough celebrated in Red Square by dictators rather than democrats, who watched the displays featuring 16,000 troops, the next-generation Armata T-14 tank, and over 100 military planes including long-range nuclear bombers.
Another democrat who was missing from the Moscow podium was Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has changed the title “Great Patriotic War” to the words used by the rest of Europe: “World War Two.” “Under the pretext of the great victory,” he has said, “Russia will brandish its lethal might in front of the world.” He now believes that “We’re at last looking at our own Ukrainian history with our own eyes, and not through Moscow’s glasses.” If Putin wants to weaponize the past, he seems to be saying, two can play at that game.