Victory Day celebrations mask simmering tensions inside Putin’s Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a pared-back Victory Day parade Thursday, showcasing his country’s unity and resolve to continue the war on Ukraine. But the martial celebrations also obscured simmering tensions inside the Kremlin and within Russian society.

At first glance, this year’s parade in Red Square was the usual well-choreographed display of military might: Over 9,000 military personnel took part, including a thousand currently serving in what Russia still calls the “special military operation” — the official euphemism for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The mechanized column was led by a World War II-era T-34 tank, a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

May 9 is more than a day for commemorating the over 25 million Soviet soldiers and civilians who died during World War II.

Under Putin, the Russian state has elevated collective remembrance of the war to something resembling a secular religion. It’s a day of high solemnity: in recent years, Russians have taken part in “Immortal Regiment” marches, carrying pictures of family members who served in the war. Putin — who has made “patriotic education” a priority — traditionally lays flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

But since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the massive military parade has been somewhat downsized. Last year, the usual fly-by of military aircraft over Red Square was cancelled, and this year’s parade only featured one tank, the T-34 museum piece. Front-line priorities appear to take precedence over ceremony.

And as in years past, Putin cast the war in Ukraine today as a continuation of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, making the mendacious claim that Russia is battling “neo-Nazism” in Ukraine. And while the war in Ukraine seems to be going better for Russia than one year ago, Putin still called for Russians to make more wartime sacrifice.

“Russia is now going through a difficult, transitional period,” he said in a speech before the parade.

“The fate of the motherland, its future depends on each of us … We celebrate Victory Day in the context of the special military operation. All its participants — those who are on the front line, on the line of combat contact — are our heroes. We bow to your perseverance and self-sacrifice, dedication. All of Russia is with you!”

But this year’s Victory Day is also happening against the background of a bribery scandal roiling Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

Last month, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov was caught in a corruption probe, arrested on suspicion of accepting a bribe of “an especially large size.” The scandal widened with the arrest of two Russian businessmen on suspicion of involvement in the bribe.

Ivanov has denied involvement in bribery and is willing to give detailed testimony to prove his innocence, according to Russian state news agency TASS. And Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Ivanov’s boss before his ouster from his ministerial post, played his usual role in this year’s Victory Day parade, reviewing the troops and reporting to Putin before the president’s speech.

Kremlinologists can draw few conclusions from Shoigu’s performance on May 9. But the arrest of Shoigu’s protégé has led to speculation about infighting at the highest echelons of power and cast an uncomfortable spotlight on what observers see as a culture of rampant graft inside the Russian military.

As the Russian defense ministry’s construction boss, Ivanov was responsible for overseeing projects such as the rebuilding of the shattered Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which was obliterated by Russian forces in 2022.

The reconstruction of showcase apartment blocks in Mariupol has been a fixture of Russian government propaganda: Putin famously paid a visit to the occupied city last spring as part of a PR campaign.

But a visual investigation by the Financial Times pointed to shoddy workmanship in Mariupol, underscoring speculation that the reconstruction funds were being siphoned off by Russian companies that had won government construction contracts.

Ivanov is under US and EU sanction for his role in the war on Ukraine. But the lavish lifestyle of his ex-partner — who has an upscale Parisian address and enjoys the slopes at Courchevel — has been extensively scrutinized by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), the investigative outfit founded by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in a Russian prison north of the Arctic Circle earlier this year.

Russia’s political opposition –— which under Putin has largely been sidelined, marginalized or chased into exile — is still reeling from the death of Navalny.

But Navalny’s investigative foundation has pressed ahead with its relentless focus on corruption in Putin’s Russia.

In recent weeks, ACF chief investigator Maria Pevchikh has managed to dominate much of the Russia conversation online with the release of a documentary series called “The Traitors,” which traces the origins of Putin against the background of the political and economic free-for-all in the Russia of the 1990s. Corruption, goes the argument, is the original sin of modern-day Russia.

But that’s not the message Putin is projecting on Victory Day.

Despite the heavy losses of men and equipment on the battlefield in Ukraine, defense spending has buoyed the Russian economy. Putin’s technocrats have deftly managed the economy amid international sanctions, returning the country to GDP growth.

But Russia’s economy remains famously inefficient and corrupt. Prestige projects — such as the 2014 Sochi Olympics — have long been marred by allegations of corruption and favoritism, especially when it comes to the award of contracts. And the living standards of ordinary Russians are a secondary consideration in Putin’s wartime economy.

Viewed through that lens, this year’s Victory Day in Moscow was more of a feel-good exercise, presenting contemporary Russia as the opposite of the ’90s: proud, militarily strong, pressing inexorably forward. And Putin, after a quarter century in power, presided over the whole affair with the same rhetoric of patriotism, sacrifice and love of Motherland.

In Russia, continuity has a quality of its own.

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