Putin contemplates another arms race

RUSPUTINMOSCOW - Intercontinental nuclear missile launchers rumbled across Red Square Thursday at a World War Two Victory Day parade in Moscow that came amid growing fears of a new arms race between Russia and the United States.

After hailing the sacrifices that Soviet troops and civilians made during the war against Nazi Germany, better known here as the Great Patriotic War, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged that his country would continue to strengthen its military capabilities.

"The lessons of the past war are relevant once again. We have done and will do everything necessary to ensure the high level of readiness of our armed forces," Mr. Putin, 66, said. “We call on all countries to realize our shared responsibility for creating an effective, balanced security system.”

Mr Putin’s comments came after President Donald Trump in February withdrew Washington from a key Cold War-era arms treaty that banned the deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with a range of up to 3,500 miles. The treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, brought an end to the build-up of nuclear missiles in Europe. Mr. Putin has threatened to target the United States with nuclear missiles, if Washington moves to deploy warheads that were prohibited by the landmark deal.

Although Victory Day is dedicated to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, the Communist state only staged a handful of military parades in Moscow to commemorate the event, which did not become a public holiday until 1965. Under Mr. Putin, however, Russia has used the annual anniversary of the end of the war to display its military might, as well as promote what opposition critics say is an aggressive form of nationalism.

Yars ballistic missile launch units, advanced S-400 air defense missile systems, tanks, and 13,000 troops were on show at the Red Square parade, which also saw the participation of the recently-created Youth Army, a Kremlin-backed military organization with almost half-a-million members between 4 and 18 years of age. Cheering crowds, including small children wearing Red Army hats, waved Russian and Soviet flags as heavy weaponry was transported through central Moscow after the event. A fly-over by dozens of fighter jets was cancelled due to heavy cloud cover.

“I brought my grandchildren here to teach them that we must never forget those who saved the world from fascism,” said Tamara Borisova, 65. “In the West, people don’t realize how much our Soviet people suffered to defeat the Nazis.”

At least 24 million Soviet citizens and soldiers – around 14 percent of the Communist state’s population - are estimated to have died during World War Two. In comparison, the total death toll for the United States during the 1939-1945 conflict was around 420,000.

Hundreds of thousands of people later marched along Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, which leads directly to the Kremlin, carrying portraits of relatives who fought in World War Two. Mr Putin, whose father was wounded during the war, was among them. State media said some ten million people participated in so-called Eternal Regiment marches across the country.

There were military parades in almost 30 towns and cities throughout Russia, from its borders with eastern Europe to Sakhalin Island, near Japan. In Pyatigorsk, a city in Russia’s south, over 500 kindergarten-aged children dressed in full military uniform took part in an event described as a “parade of pre-school troops” that Kremlin critics said was a perfect illustration of the militarization of Russian society under Mr. Putin.

Despite Mr Putin’s promise to boost further Russia’s armed forces, Moscow’s defense budget has been in decline for the past two years. Although Russia’s military is involved in ongoing military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, its defence budget shrank by 3.5 per cent in 2018 to $61.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The slump in Moscow’s military spending followed a 20 percent decline in 2017, as the Russian economy was hit by Western sanctions and a lower global price for oil, the country’s main export. SIPRI analysts said the trend was likely to continue.

This year’s Victory Day parade in Moscow was the first to take place without the attendance of a single foreign leader, after the Kremlin declined to issue invitations. Although President George W. Bush attended Russia’s 2005 Victory Day parade, foreign heads of state have largely stayed away from the event since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Mr. Putin made no direct mention of any other country during his Victory Day address.

“Judging by the president’s speech, Russia no longer needs any allies,” wrote Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin advisor, in an online post. Steven Seagal, the former Hollywood action star whom Mr. Putin last year named as Russia’s special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States, was among the few foreign guests at the Red Square parade.

While Soviet soldiers died defending what was an officially atheist state, Victory Day has also taken on an increasingly religious element. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publically crossed himself as he gave the signal for the start of Thursday’s military parade on Red Square.

At next year’s Victory Day, Russia will unveil near Moscow a massive Orthodox Christian cathedral in honor of its military triumph in World War Two. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says that Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, financed the cathedral’s main religious icon out of his own pocket. He declined to reveal how much Mr. Putin paid.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin

Story/photo publish date: 05/09/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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