The Corner

Victory Day

On Friday, Russia celebrated, as it does every May 9, the Soviet victory in the Second World War (with not too much mention of anyone else’s contribution, let alone that whole Nazi-Soviet pact thing).

Mark Galeotti deconstructs:

[Putin] understands the limitations of this patriotism today and knows how far he can and cannot push it.

Just as one of his war-winning innovations in the Second Chechen War was to “Chechenize” it, to rely on local militias and former guerrillas to take the battle to the rebels, even if that meant in effect delivering the country to the Kadyrovs, Akhmad and Ramzan, so too he is fighting his proxy war in eastern Ukraine on the cheap and nasty, through local agents and miscellaneous mercenaries and volunteers. This will lead to long-term security challenges in eastern Ukraine in the future and in part has been done precisely to make it difficult for the West to respond, but in my opinion it is also because Putin, a surprisingly cautious politician, does not believe Russians are ready for a war.

Finally, the upsurge in patriotism that is always a feature of Victory Day—Den’ pobedy—remains an essentially upbeat, celebratory phenomenon. I was last in Moscow for a Victory Day three years ago and for all that some observers have claimed to have scented either a heightened nationalism or even a degree of xenophobia in the air, I cannot say I felt the same. Instead, this remains an inclusive, cheerful event: a family day out, a chance to wear a WW2-style pilotka side-cap, sport an orange-and-black ribbon, hand a flower to one of the dwindling band of veterans and ooh and aah at the fireworks. The cops are in their Sunday best, the out-of-towners are gawping at the big city and the cafes and restaurants are doing a roaring trade, whether they sell Russian blinies, American burgers or Japanese sushi. This is, actually, quite a positive, even inclusive day.

The same, incidentally, cannot always be said of the May 9 observances by the Russian community in other parts of the old Soviet empire, such as the Baltic States, where ‘liberation’ saw the replacement with one form of totalitarian rule by another.

But back to Galeotti:

However, to round up my observations, Victory Day—and indeed, the whole campaign to take the Crimea, a frighteningly expensive bit of crowd-pleasing theatre—can be seen as part of Putin’s increasing dependence on pageantry and nationalism to legitimate a regime beginning to run out of ideas, energy and, most worrying of all, money. Of course, the trouble is that each spectacle, whether Sochi or Sevastopol, needs to outshine the last. Where does he go from here?But while Russia undoubtedly has built capacities well-suited to modern hybrid warfare (including a compliant media and network of useful idiots abroad), we should not assume that this necessarily translates into more and bigger foreign adventures. Russians themselves and in the main patriots, willing to listen to Putin’s narrative of their cultural exceptionalism, accepting of a duty to protect their kin whom geopolitics stranded in neighboring countries, but this does not translate into an uncritical appetite for war and hardship. Yes, these are the descendants of the defenders of Stalingrad and Leningrad, and any existential threat to their Motherland would no doubt trigger a resolute response. But they are also the generation of consumerism, cynicism and holidays abroad. Putin may be willing to pledge their blood to the cause of empire, but I find it hard to believe most Russians would share that enthusiasm. Victory Day, after all, is a day of celebration, as much as anything else that a past generation suffered so that the present generation doesn’t have to. And on some level, I think Putin realizes this.

Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, two ‘separatist’ enclaves in eastern Ukraine (or Pakistan, if you prefer CNN’s cartography) are voting in referenda today on whether they support the “self-rule” of their  enclaves

Russia Today:

The referendum is in full swing in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions, seeking independence from the central government. Local self-defense forces boosted security, fearing that Kiev could stage provocations to disrupt the self-determination vote…. More than fifty percent of voters in the Donetsk region have already cast their ballots, according to the head of the Central Election Commission of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Roman Lyagin. He added, that the referendum results could be made public Monday afternoon.

The referendum turnout in the Lugansk region has already reached 65 percent, according to the chairman of the local referendum committee, Aleksandr Malykhin.

Russia Today reports, I roll my eyes. 

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