MOSCOW — Smiling children run from tanks to rocket launchers, pausing only to check out the range of Kalashnikov assault rifles on display. Others crane their necks to admire military helicopters and fighter jets in the sky above. For dinner, the menu offers up real army rations.
Welcome to Patriot Park, a sprawling site an hour’s drive from Moscow that has come to be known as Russia’s “military Disneyland.”
Opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, the $368 million theme park — so the Kremlin hopes — will become an important element in what authorities call vital “military-patriotic work with young people” by the time it is fully operational in 2017. Mr. Putin used the opportunity at the opening of the theme park to announce that Russia would add 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its massive nuclear arsenal this year.
The construction of Patriot Park is just the latest sign of a growing zest for all things military that has swept Russia since last year’s annexation of Crimea by heavily armed Russian troops, operating without insignia. In recent months, children’s mock military parades have taken place across the country, tanks and other military hardware have been displayed at a once-pacifist rock festival in Moscow, and the fashionable mode of transportation at wedding parties has become armored personnel carriers.
State-run television has pitched in, with items on military drills and the development of heavy weaponry featuring prominently on prime-time news programs. Politicians and other public figures frequently talk up Russia’s military.
“Tanks don’t need visas,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on national television recently in response to Western criticism of Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic.
All of that has led to a surge of pride in Russia’s long-beleaguered armed forces, the second most powerful in the world after the U.S. military, analysts say. In a recent opinion poll, 80 percent of Russians said they were confident in the ability of the army to defend Russia, an almost fourfold increase since 2006.
The 70th anniversary of the Soviet army’s triumph over Nazi Germany has lifted the martial mood. Although President Obama and other Western leaders skipped the celebration, the May 9 parade through Red Square was the largest and most lavish in Russian history. Joining the Russian military were some 1,300 troops from 10 foreign countries, with China and India making their first appearances in the parade.
The military hardware on display in the parade included battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, mobile ICBM launchers, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
The 13.5-acre Patriot Park, in the town of Kubinka, is envisioned as the first of a chain of such parks across the country, organizers say. In addition to the interactive military weaponry displays and amusement rides, the park will host annual arms exhibitions.
“I think this park is a gift to Russian citizens, who can now behold the full power of the Russian armed forces,” the Rev. Sergei Privalov, a Russian Orthodox priest attending the opening ceremony, told the British newspaper The Guardian. He added that “children should come here, play with the weaponry and climb on the tanks.”
Critics worry that the glorification of the military is distracting the populace from the weak economy and other shortcomings closer to home.
“A terrible militarization of the consciousness is underway,” said Yevgenia Albats, editor of Moscow’s opposition-friendly New Times magazine. “It distracts from genuine problems.”
Russia has no shortage of problems. This month, Olga Golodets, the deputy prime minister responsible for social affairs, announced that 23 million Russians — 16 percent of the total population — were living below the official poverty level of less than $170 a month. This is a rise of 3 million people in 12 months.
Still, attempts to bolster the image of the military, whose budgets cratered in the years after the end of the Cold War, have been struck by a series of disasters. This month, a section of a Russian military barracks collapsed near the Siberian city of Omsk, killing 24 soldiers. Russia’s air force has suffered major setbacks: Six military aircraft of different design have crashed since the start of June. Analysts suggest the crashes were the result of Mr. Putin’s demands that Russia’s aging air force participates in a vastly increased number of military drills to the background of rising tensions with the West.
“The logic is simple: The more an aircraft flies, the quicker it exhausts its resources, and the higher the likelihood of any malfunction,” Vasiliy Sychev, a Russian military analyst, wrote on the Slon.ru website.
Denying role in Ukraine
Other critics point out that, for all the Kremlin’s professed pride in the military, Mr. Putin has refused to acknowledge the involvement of Russia’s armed forces in supporting separatist rebels in neighboring Ukraine, where over 6,400 people have been killed in 16 months of fighting.
Mr. Putin says any Russians fighting in Ukraine are volunteers and that his government can do nothing to stop people from crossing its border with the former Soviet state. The Kremlin has dismissed mounting evidence that the Russian military is in action in Ukraine, from interviews with injured servicemen to videos and photographs of apparent Russian military hardware in separatist-controlled areas.
“It is wrong that Russia is fighting an illegal war in Ukraine,” Ruslan Leviyev, a Russian anti-war activist who uses social media to uncover Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, told The Washington Times. “It is doubly wrong that Putin disowns them when they die.”
Others suggest that Russia’s growing economic woes mean it is unable to undertake either a genuine overhaul of its military or fight anything other than the kind of “hybrid warfare” that has wreaked havoc in Ukraine.
“Russia does not have the funds for a new cycle of militarization,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a leading Russian political analyst. “It needs to pay pensions and carry out Putin’s social program from a budget of $430 billion.
“We are in a very difficult moment,” she said. “The authorities have returned to military patriotism, but this is likely that last sigh, the agonies of militarism. The country cannot militarize, and it cannot fight a constant battle with the whole world.”