The Buzz

Russia’s Perilous Glorification of Militarism

Tanks rumbled through Moscow over the past week before rolling across Red Square today (May 9) in the traditional, extravagant military parade marking Victory Day. Unlike in 2015 (which marked the round 70thanniversary of the end of World War II), there were no notable foreign guests in attendance at this year’s showcase of Russia’s military might. But as Russia’s economy sinks deeper into recession, the need to again put on a spectacular show has become even greater than last year. The propaganda campaign aimed at boosting “patriotic” feelings has reached new heights, but it is difficult to reliably gauge its effectiveness. Recycling past glory can produce only so much resonance in today’s population; so appropriating the Soviet Union’s heroic victory over Nazi Germany as a means to assert the legitimacy of the Vladimir Putin regime’s aggressive but ineffectual policies is growing a bit stale (Carnegie.ru, May 4). What distinguishes the celebrations this year is the propaganda message that Russia is again surrounded by malevolent enemies and only military might can deter their encroachments (Moscow Echo, May 7).

—This story originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Monitor

A great deal of false pretense underscores this glorification of militarism. Consequently, some authors argue that instead of revealing its shallowness, it could just be shrugged off as a modern form of carnival (Gazeta.ru, May 6). However, quite real risks are associated with this loudly declared commitment to rebuff all hostile maneuvers. Russian officials are furiously protesting against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) exercises in the Baltic states and promising far-reaching “countermeasures” (Newsru.com, May 4; Novaya Gazeta, May 3). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu assures that the four NATO battalions that could be deployed in the Baltic theatre would face two new Russian divisions, while a third one will be stationed near the Donbas war zone (TASS, May 4). More protestations are issued about the small-scale exercise in Georgia, Noble Partner 2016, in which 650 troops from the United States 150 troops from the United Kingdom will train together with 500 Georgian soldiers. In Moscow’s opinion, this exercise amounts to a major “provocation” aimed at destabilizing the situation in the South Caucasus (Rbc.ru, May 6). It is remarkable that Russia is not staging any parallel exercises, but the urge to respond with guaranteed overkill is still dangerous.

Meanwhile, the military intervention in Syria is being offered as the prime showcase of Russia’s capacity for power projection. The reduction of its intensity to 20–25 sorties a day does not reduce the official triumphalism over this “small and successful” war (Rbc.ru, May 4). Each time US Secretary of State John Kerry calls Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to negotiate another extension of the partial ceasefire, Moscow registers a new diplomatic victory (RIA Novosti, May 4). The political impression from the military victory was supposed to be reinforced by the performance of the Mariinsky orchestra in the ruins of the newly-liberated city of Palmyra (Moscow Echo, May 6). What spoiled that plan for adding a cultural touch to the bombing campaign was the air strike on a refugee camp in Northern Syria, which some are characterizing as a war crime (Kommersant, May 7). Russia prevented the United Nations Security Council from condemning that atrocity, once again illuminating Moscow’s apparent indifference to the humanitarian catastrophe of the Syrian civil war (Newsru.com, May 7).

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