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Why Russia's WWII Victory Day makes the West wary

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks near U.S. President

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks near U.S. President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. Credit: AP / RIA Novosti, Presidential Press Service

The grand parade in Moscow's Red Square on Saturday was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, an event that official discourse in Russia treats as the country's greatest historical achievement. But this event was less about past victories than about Russia's uncertain future.

Alarmingly, this year's celebration of the end of the war that devastated Europe takes place amid growing fears that Europe may once again be heading toward war -- this time ignited by Russia's quest to rebuild its empire. There is a grim historical irony in the fact that Germany was the main broker of an agreement between two former Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine, to end Russia-backed hostilities in Ukraine's eastern regions.

While the agreement is still in force, peace in eastern Ukraine remains elusive, and there is abundant evidence of Russia's continued military support for separatist enclaves. It is no accident that the victory symbol of the Moscow parade, the orange-and-black St. George's ribbon, is also the symbol of the separatist insurgents of Donetsk and Luhansk.

It is no less symbolic that Russia's aggression against Ukraine caused Western leaders to boycott the parade. Even Vladimir Putin's former pal and fellow dictator Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus joined the snub, leaving Putin in the company of such friends as China's Xi Jinping and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

Domestic divisions are bitter as well. "The victory celebration has turned toxic," Maxim Trudolyubov, editorial page editor of one of Russia's few independent newspapers, Vedomosti, said Monday at a symposium of the Washington-based Kennan Institute. "It celebrates toxic aspects of history." The grandson of two World War II veterans, Trudolyubov is one of many Russians who feel that the victory has been stolen by the regime from those who paid for it with their blood.

The memory of the war itself remains a contested subject, both in Russia and between Russia and the West. In recent years, the Russian propaganda machine has worked to deny the fact that Stalin's negligence left the Soviet Union unprepared for the German invasion and that the monstrous death toll suffered by the USSR during the war -- in all likelihood, higher than the official estimate of 20 million -- was due largely to the Soviet leadership's strategic blunders and to its blatant disregard for its soldiers' lives.

The Kremlin's official version of history also downplays the role of Western powers in defeating Adolf Hitler. In his Victory Day remarks, Putin defended the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact as a survival tactic made necessary by the West's unwillingness to form an alliance with Russia. In fact, England pursued such an alliance; but Stalin preferred a pact with Hitler that would allow the two dictators to conquer Eastern Europe and divide the spoils.

Another Russian journalist who spoke at the Kennan Institute symposium, Konstantin von Eggert, noted that Russia's Victory Day in its present form is "about keeping the besieged fortress mentality." The display of Russia's latest military hardware does not honor memory or sacrifice, but sends the message that Russia's muscle as a great power must be respected.

Another speaker, U.S. defense official and former Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, noted that this message is being taken seriously but probably not in the way Russia wants. The Kremlin's saber-rattling has given a new purpose to NATO, which is reaffirming its obligations to protect the Baltic states and Eastern Europe against possible Russian aggression.

If Russia stays on its present course, peace in Europe may not last until the 75th anniversary of the victory.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

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