- - Monday, May 9, 2016

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin looked on as the pride of his country’s modernized military machine swept across Red Square on Monday at the annual event to commemorate the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II more than seven decades ago.

But the present was never far away from Mr. Putin’s mind as the tanks, missiles, planes and men filed past.

In a short speech that indirectly referenced worsening relations with the West, Mr. Putin described the Soviet Union’s military triumph as a “stern warning to those who might want to test our strength.”

He also hit out at what he said were the West’s “double standards” in supporting rebel groups in Syria that Moscow believes are terrorist organizations.

Speaking in front of uniformed Soviet war veterans, Russia’s undisputed leader also insisted that the Soviet Union brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, with more than a hint that Russia’s rebuilding military might has once again allowed Moscow to project power beyond its borders.

The military hardware on display included jet fighters and an advanced air-to-surface missile system that have been used in Russia’s military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally.

More than 10,000 soldiers, 130 armored vehicles and over 70 aircraft took part in the elaborately choreographed Victory Day event, which was broadcast live in its entirety by state TV. Russia also showed off its tactical Iskander-M ballistic missile systems and Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile systems, as well as its latest Yars mobile intercontinental nuclear missile launcher.

No expense was spared, even to guarantee fair weather for the crowd of an estimated 400,000. Moscow city authorities spent about $1 million on seeding rain clouds ahead of the event, according to documents on the state procurement website. Overall, Russia is to spend some $4 million on “cloud-bursting” in Moscow ahead of public holidays this year.

Also on display was Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which has been used to protect Russia’s air base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province. In April, Russia started delivering an earlier version of the powerful missile system, the S-300, to Iran. The shipments were carried out in the face of strong opposition from the United States and Israel.

In the skies above central Moscow, a group of 10 advanced Sukhoi SU-35S multipurpose jet fighters trailed multicolored smoke to create a red, blue and white Russian flag. SU-35S jets were deployed to Syria in early February, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry.

In one sign of Russia’s increasing military confidence, a parallel Victory Day parade — complete with advanced military hardware and a parade of soldiers and veterans — was staged Monday in the Crimean post of Sevastopol, on the peninsula annexed by Moscow from Ukraine just two years ago, the Interfax news agency reports.

A Russian submarine was docked nearby, and Russian ships lined up in Sevastopol Bay to mark the festivities.

New Guard makes debut

Also at the Moscow parade was the public debut of the National Guard, an elite security force whose creation was announced by Mr. Putin last month. While the 400,000-strong National Guard is officially tasked with combating terrorism and organized crime, critics say, it will also serve as a guarantee of Mr. Putin’s personal safety in the event of mass anti-Kremlin protests, or even a coup attempt.

Mr. Putin later joined hundreds of thousands of Russians in a march called the “The Immortal Regiment” through central Moscow. Participants held up photographs of family members who fought in World War II, which people in Russia and other former Soviet states call the Great Patriotic War. Mr. Putin held up a photograph of his father, who was wounded in combat.

“We have to remember relatives who saved us from fascism,” Marina Suslova, a 39-year-old office worker, told The Washington Times. “If it wasn’t for their sacrifices, we might not be here today.”

Ms. Suslova said her grandfather was among the estimated 1 million Soviet soldiers killed at the 1942-1943 Battle of Stalingrad, a key turning point in the war. Some 23 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives fighting Nazi Germany. Almost every Russian has a family member who was killed in the conflict.

Critics charge, however, that Mr. Putin, who revived Soviet-style military parades on Red Square in 2008, has transformed the annual commemoration of the war into an opportunity to showcase Russia’s military hardware for an international arms market, while simultaneously boosting ultranationalist sentiments.

In the run-up to the parade, national television aired a “social advertisement” that depicted the “ghost” of a World War II Soviet boy soldier who, when asked by a group of modern-day children if dying is “frightening,” the ghost replies: “That’s not important. What’s important is that we won.”

Just days before the Red Square parade, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter accused Mr. Putin of “nuclear saber-rattling.” Tensions between Washington and Moscow have been exacerbated by a series of close military encounters in the Baltic Sea.

In late April, Washington accused a Russian jet fighter of performing “erratic and aggressive maneuvers” to intercept a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea.

U.S. European Command spokesman Danny Hernandez said the Russian plane’s actions had the potential to “unnecessarily escalate tensions” between the United States and Washington.

Two days earlier, two Russian jets repeatedly buzzed the USS Donald Cook, a U.S. guided missile destroyer, in the Baltic. U.S. Navy officials described the maneuvers as a “simulated attack.”

Russia’s envoy to NATO said the U.S. destroyer was attempting to put “military pressure” on Moscow by sailing close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland. Russia recently deployed Iskander-M nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad.

Russia has criticized Washington’s plans to station a third Army combat brigade in Europe in the coming year as part of a $3.4 billion initiative to reassure NATO allies of Washington’s commitment to their security and to act as a deterrent against Russian military aggression.

In language that shocked many Russians, Dmitry Kiselev, the presenter of Russian state TV’s main weekly news program, “Vesti Nedeli,” recently described NATO-Russian relations as “khrenovie,” a curse word that translates roughly as “crappy.” Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was one of the few foreign leaders to attend this year’s Red Square parade. No Western leaders were invited. President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the Western leaders who snubbed Kremlin invitations to attend last year’s Victory Day parade in response to Russia’s military action in Ukraine.

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