Russia’s Victory Day parade allows Putin to show off military hardware, and a softer side

Russia celebrated its annual Victory Day holiday marking the end of WWII.

Moscow -- Russia marked its annual national Victory Day holiday Thursday with the usual large military parade overseen by President Vladimir Putin, as well as huge commemorative processions that have recently become a feature of the event.

Putin watched thousands of troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles as they passed through Red Square, before hosting a reception at the Kremlin where he showed a softer side. He was photographed there warmly embracing his childhood schoolteacher, Vera Gurevich.

A Soviet-era tradition that Putin revived early in his presidency after a pause following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the parade also shows off some of Russia’s most advanced military hardware. This year's showcase included Russia’s new Armata tanks as well its S400 anti-aircraft missiles.

In his speech, Putin said that “we have done and will do everything necessary to ensure the high combat capability of our armed forces.”

But he added: "At the same time, Russia is open for cooperation with all who are ready to resist terrorism, neo-Nazism and extremism."

This year's celebration was slightly more low-key, with no world leaders in attendance beyond Kazakhstan’s recently resigned president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The traditional military flyover was also canceled due to bad weather. Organizers normally try to ensure clear skies by using planes to seed the clouds so it rains before the event instead of during -- but the technique only seemed to produce sunshine later in the day.

The American actor Steven Seagal -- who Putin made a special envoy for humanitarian affairs with the United States in 2017 -- also watched the parade.

Long Russia’s most important secular holiday, Victory Day has in recent years taken on increased significance as the country has taken a more militaristic and nationalistic turn under Putin. Since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the resulting rupture with the West, authorities have increasingly turned to celebrations of Russian military power to unify the country behind Putin.

Thursday's Victory Day celebrations included a military parade at Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, the hub for Russia's air campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Syrian army troops joined Russian troops and armored equipment for the event.

Celebrations were also held in dozens of other Russian cities, as well as in other former Soviet countries.

Hundreds of thousands of people across Russia also took part in the so-called ‘Immortal Columns,’ huge processions of marchers holding up placards with photographs of their relatives killed in the war. The marches are a recent innovation, first held on a large scale in 2015, and some critics have accused the Kremlin of co-opting what was initially a grassroots movement into a propaganda exercise.

The holiday, however, evokes strong emotions in a country where almost every family lost someone during the war. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died in World War II, dwarfing the losses sustained by U.S. and European allies. In contrast, the U.S. is estimated to have suffered around 415,000 casualties.

"The memory of victory, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, is the glue of the nation, binding together the most diverse of ages and social groups,” Andrey Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote Wednesday in an op-ed for The Moscow Times.

But, Kolesnikov wrote, the holiday "is also the main marketing tool employed to legitimize Russia’s current political regime” in the person of Putin. “He is the thread woven through time sustaining this glory. In turn, anyone who criticizes Putin is implicitly criticizing Russia’s great history and its heroic victory.”