Since the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, Soviet and later Russian troops have massed for massive parades at the major anniversaries of the end of World War II. This year, as Russia and the rest of the world celebrate seventy-five years since the defeat of Nazism, the parade will be postponed over fears surrounding the novel Coronavirus pandemic.
The parade, which has been an important date on Russian President Putin’s calendar for years, remains a fixture for Russian society and its postponement demonstrates the degree to which the Russian government recognizes the risk posed by the current pandemic. A Wall Street Journal report on the postponement mentions that no new date has been set for the parade, though November 7th, when October Revolution Day has typically been marked and September 3rd, the date of Japan’s surrender, have been suggested as alternatives, though critics have pointed out that. the September date does coincide with the anniversary of the tragic failure to rescue hostages from a school in Chechnya in 2004.
The Victory Day parade this year, marking 75 years since Germany’s surrender, was supposed to be substantially larger than your run-of-the-mill Russian military celebration. Other militaries have long been a fixture at the event since the Soviet Union broke apart, but his year plans were in place to invite service-members from all of the former Soviet states, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Israel, Iran, India, China, Mongolia, Poland, and Serbia to be included in the event. World. War II veterans from Russia and. abroad had also been invited to participate alongside active Russian soldiers and other guests from abroad.
Though he ultimately declined the offer, President Trump mulled an appearance at the parade, an unprecedented gesture for an American leader, before recently deciding to send a security advisor in his stead.
As late as March 24, the authorities planning the parade were still in full swing and had tentatively settled on a plan to hold the parade without spectators. The Moscow Times reported that the event would have been held with 15,000 soldiers and more than 400 vehicles taking part while the spectators that have historically lined the route would have been absent.
While preventing spectators, particularly elderly veterans who have long been a fixture at the celebration, could have served to curb some of the impact from hosting the event, especially for those most vulnerable, it was ultimately decided that a no-spectator plan was unfeasible. The parade preparation alone represented too great a risk to those involved to proceed, even if those involved wore masks, and veterans groups, fearing for their elderly members, requested that the parade be postponed as well.
These parades have been simultaneous celebrations of victory and opportunities for the Soviet Union (and now Russia) to let the world know what exactly its contemporary arsenals hold. While the parades have long featured World War II veterans and equipment, the main event at these parades has been the debut of new fearsome weaponry for use during the Cold War and beyond.
As always, the parade would have been more than just marching soldiers. Each year the Russian military has used the Victory Day celebration as a carefully calculated show of force, bringing seemingly endless lines of armored vehicles and missile launchers along Moscow’s impossibly wide boulevards under substantial cover from the newest and most intimidating equipment the Russian Air Force has to offer as well.
Back in 2014, as Russia congratulated itself on its invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, the parade included Tu-160 nuclear-capable swing-wing bombers, TOPOL-M intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, and scores more planes, helicopters, tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces. and other kinds of equipment as well.
While the parade is typically used as a highly stylized propaganda event, things haven’t always gone to plan. In 2015, the Victory Day parade was the debut of Russia’s next-generation T-14 Armata main battle tank that was supposed to revolutionize Russian ground tactics. The advanced tank, equipped with an automatic main gun and planned upgrades to full autonomy, stalled during a practice run. The embarrassment led the Russian military to do two things: buy a set of WWII-era T-34 tanks from Laos for parade duty and drastically rethink the modernization strategy for the country’s mechanized divisions.
Though blunders like the T-14 rollout have demonstrated the limits of the parade to function as a major node of the country’s power projection strategy, the parade still works well as a way to give analysts a better sense of what Russia’s military is cooking up, which serves Russia and its adversaries alike. Russia gets the benefit of putting its nuclear deterrent in front of international news cameras while the rest of the world is blessed with detailed photos of sensitive equipment that, in the hands of the right analysts, can help keep us from approaching the brink of nuclear confrontation, even if they come from an Aeroflot ad shot with parade practice coincidentally in the background.
While the value of the parade to analysts is evident, it’s still difficult to quantify just how meaningful the display is to intelligence sources. Analysis of photos from parades past has seemed to give think-tanks a lot to talk about, but my hunch is that the lion’s share of the meaningful intelligence information gathered at these events never reaches the public eye. If the parade does hold that kind of value for intelligence services, its postponement and possible cancellation may serve to be more damaging to those looking to understand and counter Russian tactics and strategy than to Russia itself.
I’m sure the postponement of the parade is a huge disappointment to those who were looking to celebrate, particularly veterans who are at home in isolation until the danger of the pandemic passes. But there will be more parades, and if anyone is looking for one to watch, might I suggest the Moscow City Day Parade I reported on last year? That should tide you over till the next time big Russian machines hit the Moscow streets.