One tank. Some very young soldiers. And a distinctly warped message.
The display on Red Square for May 9, for decades a moment when Russia’s staggering sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War was sombrely honored, rang hollow. In 2023, it became a backdrop for the Kremlin head’s poor decision-making.
Putin’s speech was littered with references to Russia being sinned against — to his wider narrative that the invasion and war he started in Ukraine was foisted upon him by NATO. It is odd to hear as Russia gathers to honor the millions of Soviet citizens who died fighting the Nazis. The key question will be how many in the crowd felt that dissonance too.
The substance of the parade itself was also telling. There was only one tank: a T-34, a model made 89 years ago, before Putin was even born, raising the question of why they decided to include any tanks at all.
The level of hardware on display seemed thin: understandable perhaps for a military being mauled on a wide and relentless frontline. But again, it raises the enduring bind for the Kremlin.
They keep having to prove their strength, their might, yet have little actual might left to do it with. The exercise ends up being one of revealing weakness.
No jets flew by. The Kremlin itself had — according to its own press release — come under drone attack just days earlier. All incompatible with Putin’s unique sales point — that under him Russia is impregnable and respected again.
In the background too lurks the real war’s progress. The constant side drama with Russia’s most prominent military figure — the Wagner mercenary head Yevgeny Prigozhin — continued to play out. He threatened to leave the key city of Bakhmut unless he got more artillery shells, then said he was definitely leaving tomorrow, then said he would stay. He chose the moment of the parade to release a statement saying in fact Russian MoD troops had abandoned positions around Bakhmut and he had been threatened with treason charges if he left. This is not a message of unity.
And secondly, Russia’s wrath appears neutered. For yet another night, a wave of drone and missile attacks was thwarted by Ukraine’s air defenses. Over the past week, lives have been lost and civilians injured by debris from destroyed drones or missiles that have got through.
But above all, Ukraine's air defense has proven potent — and Moscow less so.
It raises again the long-term question of this war: Is a weak Russia dangerous or just weak?