Russia's delayed military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Soviet Union kicked off in Moscow on Wednesday morning with a patriotic display that some say is meant to lift President Vladimir Putin's lower-than-usual ratings on the eve of a vote that could extend his rule.
Over 14,000 troops, 200 armored vehicles, and 75 aircraft are expected participate in the celebration in Moscow's Red Square. Representatives from 13 other countries will also be present.
Reporting from the Red Square, DW's Emily Sherwin said the parade "is always an opportunity for Russia to show off its role as the victor nation and also to show off its military might."
At a military cathedral on Monday, Putin called the Soviet wartime victory a "sacred memory."
"It's always with us and gives us strength, strength to serve our country and moral messages which we do not have the right to resile from and will never do so," he said.
The parade, originally scheduled for May 9, was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreaks. Critics have said it is irresponsible to go ahead with it now.
With over 8,000 fatalities and some 600,000 confirmed infections, Russia has the third-largest coronavirus caseload in the world in gross terms, after the United States and Brazil.
According to officials, the new date was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the first post-war parade on Red Square, when Soviet troops threw down Nazi standards in front of the Lenin mausoleum on June 24, 1945.
Despite the infection risk, Sherwin said many people on the scene told her the parade needed to happen.
"People told me about their grandmothers and their grandfathers who took part in the war effort. After all, you have to remember that an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens were killed during World War II," she said.
"Just now in his speech Putin talked about the huge sacrifices that the Soviet people had to take to, as he said, free Europe from Nazism and the huge importance of that for Russia today as well. In a way, Victory Day and the Great Patriotic War, as its known here, have become part of the official state ideology here in Russia," she added.
Read more: Russia accuses US of downplaying Soviet role in WWII
Showboating ahead of the vote
The celebration took place on the eve of a vote, open from June 25 to July 1, on constitutional changes, among them an amendment that could allow Putin two more six-year presidential terms if re-elected. Current law bars him from seeking re-election when his term ends in 2024. If approved, it would pave the way for Putin to serve longer as Russia's leader than wartime leader Josef Stalin spent in charge of the Soviet Union.
Read more: Vladimir Putin opens door to stay on as Russia's president
"It’s clear that the Kremlin timed this strategically," Sherwin said. "They wanted to create a patriotic atmosphere among the people here ahead of that vote."
State pollster VTsIOM have said between 67% and 71% of voters will approve the change. Critics have called the vote a sham.
Others doubt the veracity of Putin's current approval rating, which currently stands at 59%. Polls show that rising unemployment, falling oil prices, and the prolonged coronavirus lockdown have coincided with a greater willingness to protest in Russia.
Speaking with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Tuesday, economist and Putin critic Sergei Aleksashenko said that Putin was determined to hold the Wednesday parade.
"Vladimir Putin believes that the parade is a reaffirmation of his greatness, the greatness of the country and of our historical memory," he said.
Read more: May 8, 1945, was 'zero hour' for Germany in multiple ways
kp/msh (AFP, Reuters)