Politics

Putin's 'trauma' as Western leaders boycott his Victory Day parade

"Glory to Russia," intoned President Vladimir Putin, before his country's stirring national anthem boomed out across Red Square. Then Putin took his seat and shared a smile and a word with US President George W Bush. Behind the two presidents that sunny May afternoon in 2005 were the leaders of France, Germany and Italy, all in Moscow to attend the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany.

What a difference a decade makes. The celebrations in Russia this month marking the end of the Second World War - better known across the former Soviet Union as the "Great Patriotic War" – will be in stark contrast to 10 years ago.

In a marked reflection of the rift between Russia and the West over the conflict in Ukraine, not a single Western leader, aside from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, will travel to Moscow for the 70th anniversary of victory tomorrow on 9 May. Instead, Putin will oversee the massive Red Square military parade in the company of Chinese President Xi Jinping, along with autocrats from former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also due to attend, in what would have been his first foreign visit since inheriting the leadership of the hermit kingdom in late 2011, but pulled out at the last moment.

"For Putin, the refusal of Western leaders to attend the Victory Day parade confirms that Russia and the West have irrevocably gone their separate ways," says Fyodor Lukyanov, Kremlin-connected chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy. "The fact that China's president will be in attendance is highly illustrative of Russia's new direction."

Although Putin – a native of Leningrad, the Soviet city that withstood an 872-day siege by Nazi forces – has attempted to play down the significance of the Western boycott, the snub has clearly angered him.

Speaking at his annual televised Q&A session with the nation in April, Putin accused the United States of "prohibiting" its allies from sending their heads of state to the event. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will, however, visit Russia on the day after the 9 May parade for talks with Putin. She is also expected to lay a wreath at Moscow's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Other Russian officials have used even stronger language than Putin. Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the European Union, has called the boycott an "insult" to the memory of Soviet soldiers who died fighting Nazism.

Even seven decades on, it's impossible to overestimate the continuing importance of the Second World War for Russians. More than 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died during the conflict, leaving large swathes of the country in ruins. When victory finally came in May 1945, it was met by a mass outpouring of joy, as millions took to the streets in celebration. The euphoria has barely subsided over the years.

Last year, Putin called Victory Day Russia's "most important holiday" and a "holy" occasion. In the run-up to this year's holiday, central Moscow has been decorated with portraits of wartime heroes, while a gigantic memorial complex to the more than one million Soviet soldiers who died at the Battle of Stalingrad has undergone extensive renovation.

But Victory Day is about more than honouring the war dead. As the shaky ceasefire in Ukraine lurches towards total collapse, Russia plans to show off a new-generation battle tank called Armata T-14 at the Red Square parade, which will also feature 15,000 soldiers and 150 combat aircraft.

Tough Western sanctions over Russia's support for pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, Nato expansion, and the recent deployment of US paratroopers and British military advisers to train the battered Ukrainian army have given the Kremlin the perfect opportunity to portray Russia as once more besieged by enemies. In late April, Colonel-General Anatoly Sidorov, who commands Russian forces in the west of the country, accused the United States of waging a "hybrid war" against Russia as part of a plan for world domination.

Opinion polls have shown a sharp rise in anti-Western attitudes within Russia.

"It's good that Russians have become more critical about the West, instead of just thinking everything there is perfect," says Konstantin Dolgirev, a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD), an aggressive nationalist organisation that has gained prominence in Russia in recent months.

"How would you like it if your neighbours invited in some guys who then sat outside your house with their weapons pointed at you?" asks Daniil Levinsky, another NOD member.

In addition to the ratcheting up of anti-Western sentiments, a wildly successful smear campaign by state media has left millions of Russians convinced that the Ukrainian government that came to power after last year's Maidan protests is a "fascist junta" – despite the fact that not a single far-Right party made it into the former Soviet state's parliament at recent elections. The invocation of the spectre of fascism has allowed the Kremlin to tap into powerful wartime memories.

Putin has called the Maidan uprising that deposed Ukraine's pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, a "neo-Nazi" coup, while Kremlin-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine have portrayed the fighting there as a continuation of the Second World War.

"The United States was our wartime ally, but now it has sent its soldiers to aid the fascist government in Ukraine," says Yevgeny Rogov, a 90-year-old veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad.

"America wants to destroy Russia," says Vladimir, a 93-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel, who also fought at Stalingrad. He does not wish to give his last name. Both men were speaking to Newsweek following a Second World War remembrance event that took place in late April in Volgograd, as Stalingrad has been known since 1961.

The political importance for the Kremlin of the memory of victory in the Second World War has translated into the necessity to control historical interpretations of the conflict. Under a law signed by Putin last year, it is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years behind bars to "distort" the role of the Red Army or the Soviet leadership during the war.

This means it is dangerous to discuss the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that carved up Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, or the reported mass rapes carried out by Soviet soldiers as they marched towards Berlin. It is also increasingly risky openly to criticise the wartime actions of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose reputation has undergone a state-sponsored rehabilitation in recent years. Tellingly, Putin has expressed support for renaming Volgograd in honour of Stalin.

"Putin sees something of himself in Stalin," says Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider turned government critic. "Not domestically, he does not plan to revive the gulags, but in the international arena, as someone who is also in a position to resolve great issues.

"That's why he is extremely upset over the refusal of Western leaders to visit Moscow for the Victory Day parade. It has been a blow to his self-image, and a psychological trauma for him.

"This could have significant consequences for the situation in Ukraine," says Belkovsky, "because Putin won't forget or forgive this snub."

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