Friday, January 18, 2008

Russia revives military boast of Soviet days

The Washington Times - David R. Sands

Reviving yet another iconic image from Soviet days, Russia's military announced plans to stage a parade of ballistic missiles, tanks and platoons of soldiers this May through the Kremlin's Red Square.

The display of military hardware, the first of its kind since 1990, will be held May 9, the day Russians mark the victory over Germany in World War II, and could coincide with the inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev, close aide to outgoing President Vladimir Putin, as Russia's new leader.

Similar displays, typically held May 1, were a high point of the old Soviet calendar, with leaders such as Josef Stalin and other top Communist Party figures perched on the reviewing stand above Lenin's Tomb to witness the country's military prowess and send a message to the Soviet Union's Cold War adversaries.

The announcement comes at a time of rising tension between Russia and the West, on issues ranging from a planned U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, to human rights to the future of Serbia's Kosovo province. Mr. Putin also has struggled to rebuild Russia's military forces, which deteriorated badly in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.

"You can't teach an old imperial bear new tricks," said Ariel Cohen, a Russian specialist at the Heritage Foundation. "The current regime's craving for international prestige is as high as the insecurity of its rulers."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband yesterday accused Moscow of following the old, hostile Soviet pattern in an escalating dispute over Russia's order that two British cultural outreach offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg be shut down. Russia claims the centers are operating illegally, but Mr. Miliband said Russian authorities were trying to intimidate the British employees.

"We saw similar actions during the Cold War, but frankly thought they had been put behind us," Mr. Miliband told the House of Commons.

According to Russia's Interfax news agency, the May 9 parade lineup will include the newest version of the Topol-M SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missile, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and 6,000 troops decked out in a newly designed uniform.

Mr. Putin has made restoring Russian national pride and reclaiming some of its lost international influence central to his presidency.

He revived a reworked version of the old Soviet anthem as Russia's new national anthem and once called the collapse of the old Soviet empire "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

With Mr. Putin's endorsement, Mr. Medvedev is expected to win the March 2 presidential vote handily. He already asked Mr. Putin to serve as his prime minister.

The official May Day parades were discontinued after 1990. In recent years, the day has been marked in Moscow and other cities primarily by protest marches by the declining Communist Party and by right-wing nationalist parties.

President Boris Yeltsin began staging military parades — without the weaponry — through Red Square in 1995, the first one marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said the revived display is one of a number of recent symbolic moves by the country's military. They include the resumption of strategic bomber patrol flights over the Atlantic and Pacific in August and plans for major naval exercises in the Mediterranean for the first time since 1991.

Mr. Felgenhauer noted that the traditional route for the May parade must now be altered in part because of the construction of a new shopping mall.

"One can only hope that ... no ancient building will collapse as tanks and ICBMs roll into central Moscow to serve the vanity of Russia's leaders," he said.

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