An extravagant Victory Day military parade commenced Wednesday in Moscow, as Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to solidify support ahead of a national referendum that could keep him in power until 2036.
The annual parade, which commemorates the end of World War II in Europe, is usually held on May 9. Putin had originally planned a major celebration, inviting world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping to join him.
But like many public events around the globe, the event was postponed over coronavirus fears. The Kremlin delayed the event after a letter from veterans’ organizations voiced concerns about the health risks such an event might pose.
Many foreign leaders chose to stay away from the rescheduled event, but leaders of several former Soviet states were in attendance on Wednesday, including Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been a prominent coronavirus skeptic.
The audience this year on Red Square has been significantly reduced, with every two to three seats left empty to separate groups of guests. Crowds gathered outside of the square to watch the tanks roll in despite calls from Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to stay home and watch it on TV.
Putin himself is surrounded by veterans who had to be quarantined for 14 days at a health resort outside of Moscow, the Kremlin said.
The parade itself has been expanded. All told, more than 14,000 troops are taking part in this year’s ceremony in Red Square, according to the official announcer.
This year’s parade also has international contingents, with troops from India, Mongolia, China and former Soviet republics of Central Asia taking part, among others.
The Russian military previously said that they were isolated for rehearsals and have been tested for coronavirus.
Last week, Putin published an article in the US magazine National Interest that highlighted Russia’s efforts to claim some moral high ground in the years leading up to the start of World War II. He echoed that sentiment in a speech at the parade, saying: “We will always remember that it’s the Soviet people that defeated Nazi Germany… and it’s hard to imagine what would have happened to the world hadn’t the Red Army came to its rescue.”
Only “unity,” Putin added, can help the world fight threats in the future.
The parade is particularly significant for the President this year as it comes ahead of a national vote on controversial changes to Russia’s constitution that would effectively reset his presidential term count and could potentially pave the way for him to stay in power until 2036.
That vote had been originally scheduled for April 22 but was also postponed due to coronavirus.
Russia is still reporting around 7,000 new cases a day, with its total number of confirmed cases totaling 606,881, according to the country’s coronavirus headquarters.
Moscow lifted most of its restrictions ahead of the parade but many cities across the country which normally hold local parades chose to cancel or hold them without any spectators.