By Nicholas Dima l May 28, 2010
What would Reagan do? President Ronald Reagan, who helped bring an end to the Cold War with the Soviet Union symbolized by his call for Mikhail Gorbechev to tear down the Berlin Wall, would roll over in his grave at the sight of American soldiers marching under the Soviet banner in Moscow’s Red Square, where the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, is entombed. “Well,” as the Gipper would say, that’s exactly what happened, on May 9, 2010, when in an unprecedented event members of the U.S. Army stationed with NATO in Europe marched alongside contingents of British, French, Polish and 10,000 Russian troops in the Victory Day Parade. The parade commemorated the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe.
Under his watch, America’s Commander-and-Chief, Barack Obama, did not attend the Great Patriotic War celebration in Moscow. But, imagine the photo op in this digital age of the president of the United States saluting the U.S. Army marching in Red Square while standing alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao, under the symbol of worldwide communist oppression, the hammer and sickle, as a Russian honor guard carried the Red Army flag, Russian military jets performed a fly over and Russian tanks and intercontinental ballistic missile launchers paraded through Red Square. Not exactly a picture of an American-style Memorial Day of parades and picnics or a even a Fourth of July, Independence Day, celebration of freedom and liberty.
Instead, President Barack Obama, through the White House Office of the Press Secretary issued a statement on May 8 marking the end of World War II for the Soviet Union:
“On May 9, the Russian Federation will host a commemoration of one of the most important events in human history – the defeat of fascism in World War II. This achievement was won only by the extraordinary sacrifices made by many people, including Americans and Russians, and those sacrifices will be honored by the presence of troops from the many nations that came together to defend our common security and human dignity in an hour of maximum peril. In marking this occasion, President Medvedev has shown remarkable leadership in honoring the sacrifices of those who came before us, and in speaking so candidly about the Soviet Union’s suppression of ‘elementary rights and freedoms.’ His words remind us that we must all work together on behalf of a world in which the fundamental human rights that all people deserve are protected.” [Emphasis added].
Never mind “suppression,” Mr. Obama, tens-of-thousands of political prisoners and millions of families were sentenced to an empty existence for decades-on-end under the Soviet Union’s “tyranny and oppression” established behind the Iron Curtain that befell Eastern Europe following the World War II-era signing of the Yalta Agreement in Crimea, Ukraine.
After several years of disorientation following the official collapse and dismemberment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on December 31, 1991, and after searching for a new policy toward its former empire and the West, a resurgent Russia is now attempting to reposition itself geopolitically while simultaneously flexing its muscles once again over the “near abroad” or the former Soviet republics. The victory parades organized in Moscow, throughout Russia and for the first time in four Ukrainian cities this year, especially following the election victory of Viktor Yanukovich, helped to enhance Moscow’s image at home. Yet, the Moscow event in particular revealed old resurfacing controversies and new hard to resolve political problems.
The Moscow commemoration was organized to last four days and to culminate with the military parade in Red Square on May 9 in front of the Kremlin. At the same time, to make sure that the leaders of the former Soviet republics, some of them now members of the Community of Independent states (CIS), would attend the celebration, they were also called for a special meeting in Moscow of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Kremlin’s version of NATO, organized among the former Soviet Socialist Republics. The meetings were held just one day before the parade on May 8 ensuring a larger Victory Day attendance.
However, despite all the measures taken by Russia to impress the world with its new found self-assurance, the results were lukewarm. The American, Western European and Eastern European mainstream media barely mentioned the grand event. Compared to Moscow’s 50th anniversary celebration and parade in 1995 commemorating the end of World War II in Europe, attended by numerous world leaders including then-President Bill Clinton assembled in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, only 21 countries participated in the 65th anniversary parade on Sunday, May 9, 2010. Of significance, only Germany’s Angela Merkel attended this time around. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Silvio Burlesconi of Italy and Barack Obama of the United States were notably absent. In fact, Moscow, in a diplomatic affront, refused to accept country representatives including Vice President Joe Biden and England’s Prince Charles. Instead, the big names on Vladimir Putin’s stage included such world renowned leaders as Sergai Bogapsh and Eduard Kokoity, the separatist Georgian leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, along with Georgian opposition leaders with whom Moscow expects to take over in Tbilisi, if Putin succeeds in his ongoing efforts to overthrow the pro-Western Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvilli. Also attending from the post-Soviet sphere of influence were the leaders of all the CIS states, except for Uzbekistan and the Baltic states.
After the collapse of Soviet Communism, many Russians tried to explain and understand the catastrophe brought upon them by the greatest war of all. World War II was both a huge victory for Russia and, at the same time, a tremendous defeat for the Soviet system. Putin and the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, intervened and put an end to the debate declaring the war a heroic Russian victory. And it was Putin, the former KGB colonel, who set Russia on a new course aimed at reestablishing the former Soviet superiority.
As president, Vladimir Putin readopted the former Soviet national anthem, resorted to a strong-arm policy, pacified Chechnya in a brutal way, and restored the prestige of Russia in the eyes of the people. Ruling over a lucky period when the price of oil skyrocketed, Putin had enough money to secure internal tranquility, to improve the lots of the average citizens, and to start to rebuild Russia’s deteriorated military. When time came to retire after two four year terms, Putin found a pliant man to replace him as president, and he assumed the power behind the throne as prime minister in March 2008. His policies of restoring Russia as a superpower continued.
Under Putin as prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev as president, Russia regained partial control of Georgia and most of the Caucasus and brought Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit. At the same time, Russia began to improve relations with the United States, signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with President Obama, and continued to court Western Europe. The recent parade in Moscow was meant to celebrate more than a victory; it was meant to show the world a new, self-assured and resurgent Russia. The anniversary reminded many observers of Beijing’s organizing of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games showing the world a new magnificent China, except for Russia there wasn’t anything tangible like Olympic stadiums or new infrastructure; Victory Day 2010 was purely political and for internal consumption.
That thought gives rise to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics to be held from February 7 to February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia located on the Black Sea just northeast of Abkhazia, Georgia and only some 20 miles from the Georgian border. Sochi was selected on July 4, 2007 just 11 months prior to Russia’s brutal invasion of Georgia on August 8, 2008. Not since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow during the Soviet era has Russia been the site for the Olympics. Athletes from the U.S. and 64 countries boycotted the games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That actually begs the question as to whether there should be a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi unless Georgian sovereignty is immediately restored for the two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia presently controlled and occupied by Russia.
The Russian success of Victory Day, however, was fleeting and marred by problems. The Europe of 2010 is very different than the Europe ravaged by World War II in 1945. Most Europeans have left the past behind and are trying to solve now their current economic problems with the European Union and to look for a better future. Although Moscow invited many heads of states, only some of them accepted the invitation. The leaders of the most important allies of Moscow during the war, the United States and Great Britain, did not attend the anniversary.
The only Western leader attending the Moscow event was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Currently, Russia is courting Germany and France with favorable commercial deals. Germany is dependent on Russian energy deliveries, while France has just concluded a deal to modernize the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Ukraine. On May 10, immediately after the military parade, the German Missions in the United States posted a brief news release announcing that “On Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the memorial service to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Moscow.”
The attitude of Eastern Europe, which after the war was actually victimized for over 40 years by Moscow, ranged from cool to hostile. The three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, simply refused to attend the anniversary spectacle. Georgia, a small Caucasian country mutilated by Russia after the fall of communism and invaded militarily as recently as 2008, refused to go to Moscow for Victory Day. Romania, whose eastern province of Bessarabia, part of it now the Republic of Moldova, was not even invited. As for the Republic of Moldova, before the ceremony, its interim president Mihai Ghimpu, declared: “I cannot attend an event that celebrates the bringing of communism to my country, the bringing of organized famines, the massive deportations of our people to Siberia, the breaking up of my country, and the artificial separation of my nation.” As a result, Mr. Ghimpu went to Moscow for the May 8 CIS meeting, met President Medvedev shortly, and departed immediately without attending the May 9 parade. Upon his return to Chisinau he explained to Unimedia his decision and said that in his brief discussion with President Medvedev he raised the question of the continued Russian military presence in the Moldovan Trans-Dnestr break-away region. His attitude and comments were amply reported by the Moldovan newspapers such as Timpul, by the Romanian press, and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Another dramatic Eastern European case-in-point is that of Poland. The Poles fought alongside the Allies during the war against Germany, but the Soviet treatment of Poland and the Katyn massacre marred any real post-war reconciliation between Moscow and Warsaw. And, of course, the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 94 other high ranking Polish dignitaries at the former Soviet military base at Smolensk airport in Belarus as a result of an “accidental” air crash enroute to a Katyn commemoration with Russian leaders on April 10 did not do anything to reconcile the two sides. According to some sources, President Kaczynski had not planned to attend Moscow’s World War II ceremonies.
Within the CSTO, Moscow has brought Belarus into its Collective Rapid Response Force (CRRF) granting it legal authority to station troops on Poland’s border, while the U.S. through NATO deployed Patriot Missile batteries accompanied by American troops. The CRRF is comprised of: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Regional events favoring the Kremlin’s interests include: the territorial expansion into Georgia, the recent coup in Kyrgyzstan, the election in Ukraine, the Victory Day military parades and Belarus’ participation in the CRRF. The post-Soviet elite appears more inclined to integrate the former Soviet republics and to maintain its wealth than to pursue free markets and democratic reforms.
Slowly, gradually, and with ever so calculated chess moves, Moscow is flexing its political and military muscles once again. Russia is also pursuing a plan to revamp and modernize its military by 2020. On this subject, President Medvedev declared at the Moscow ceremony that “a global military conflict is still possible and Russia must be prepared.” As reported by RFE/RL, he told Izvestia and the government controlled RIA news agency that “one efficient way to protect national interests is to strengthen our military and our nuclear capacity.” Previously, however, as reported by Newsweek of May 17, Medvedev had deplored the dire economic situation of Russia and its “humiliating” dependency on oil and gas exports on the one hand, and on imported Western technology on the other. How is this dire state of affairs going to be changed? The Russian economy is stagnating and once again, since the fall of the USSR, requires Western technology and foreign investment. At the same time, the Russian population is declining, the ethnic minorities are still increasing and restless, especially at the fringe of the Russian Federation and Eastern Siberia is slowly falling under the Chinese sphere of influence. The May 9 celebrations in Moscow may well turn into a May Day call for the Russian Federation, which may very well be on the same course pursued in the past by the former Soviet Union.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to