Late in the evening on May 8, 1945 (May 9 Moscow time) the leadership of Nazi Germany signed an unconditional surrender to Allied forces, marking the end of World War II. The ravages of war had claimed 60 million lives, roughly a third of them Russian soldiers and civilians.
Last Friday, on the 69th anniversary of this event, President of Russia Vladimir Putin called it “Russia’s most important holiday”, while overseeing a maritime and aerial parade of military forces at the port of Sevastopol in Crimea.
Putin began the ceremonies on board a ship bearing the Flag of the President of Russia. Putin’s vessel passed a row of warships as Putin greeted and congratulated the crews of each one and they replied with their thanks in unison. Putin then proceeded to come ashore and made a speech in which included the declarations: “I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our entire country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming faithfulness to historical truth and the memory of our ancestors…Much work lies ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger.”
Just two months ago, on March 16, in response to the Ukrainian revolution, Sevastopol, along with Crimea, participated in a referendum in which 95% of participants voted to join the Russian Federation. Two days later a treaty was signed, formally incorporating the region into Russia. The agreement has been harshly criticized and rejected by the United States, NATO and the United Nations, among a host of other countries and organizations.
The military occupation by insignia-less Russian forces that preceded the referendum, coupled with the bypassing of the Ukrainian government (which Moscow considers illegitimate) was reminiscent of a Soviet-era annexation, rather than the self-determination of the region’s residents. A concerted and ongoing propaganda campaign, which has labeled the current leadership in Kiev as “fascists” harkens back to World War II when Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Communists.
Vladimir Putin’s plans have become a topic of intense speculation and consternation, especially among the governments and citizens of Russia’s neighbors in Eastern Europe. NATO has sent troops and fighter planes to conduct training exercises and patrols in the Baltics, Poland and Romania. The tensions between Russia and the West are at their highest point since the Cold War with no end in sight.
While it may spike television ratings and media clicks for commentators to claim that Putin is rebuilding the Soviet Union, it’s a stretch to liken what has happened in recent months to what Joseph Stalin did during and after World War II. Putin’s moves are definitely aggressive by modern standards, but risking war with the United States (through conflict with NATO) doesn’t seem likely. Putin’s popularity ratings have soared in Russia and the annexed territories while the West has been conflicted and indecisive.
Whatever happen’s next, one can be certain that as long as simmering tensions continue to rattle Europe, reminding it of Russia’s military and economic power and enhancing Putin’s popularity among his countrymen, the methods of destabilization on the Old Continent’s periphery will continue. Though the Soviet Union is no more, the mentality of aggressive competition with the West is alive and well. The annexation of Crimea can’t be compared to the conquest of Eastern Europe in 1944-1945, but for Putin, the celebrations of “Victory Day” marked more than an anniversary, but an attempt to revive an image of Russian power that has long been dormant.