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Testy anniversary

Jefferson ChaseMay 8, 2015

Seventy years ago much of the world united to defeat Nazi Germany. But ahead of the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the Allies of then are deeply divided along the political lines of now.

Vladimir Putin speaks during the 2014 victory parade
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There's little unity these days among the nations that formed the anti-fascist military coalition seven decades ago. Spats surrounding the celebration ceremonies have reflected today's political conflicts, in particular between the West and Russia over the latter's de facto annexation of Crimea.

International leaders including US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are boycotting the massive Russian military parade in Moscow on May 9. Russian President Vladimir Putin for his part declined to turn up at commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on January 27.

Putin was angry at Polish suggestions that Auschwitz was actually liberated by Ukrainian units and that commemorations of the end of World War II be held in London or New York instead of Moscow. In April Poland - which associates the end of the war not just with the defeat of Nazism but with 44 years of Soviet domination - refused entry to a group of Putin-friendly motorcyclists, the "Night Wolves," who sought to recreate the march of the Red Army on Berlin in 1945.

There are numerous issues at play in the anniversary. But Russia's conflict with the West over Ukraine overshadows all of them.

Historical gamesmanship

Putin no doubt knew that there was no way the Western leaders who have been critical of Russia annexation of Crimea would attend the May 9 festivities in Moscow. In a sense that was his entire plan.

"President Putin is using Western leaders' refusal to participate in Victory Day celebrations to consolidate anti-Western sentiments," Kathleen Smith - Visiting Professor of Post-Communism at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service - told DW. "Memories of World War II are quite complex in Russia and even though the upcoming holiday marks victory and the end of the war, Russians will also remember their isolation from the West in the 1930s, and the German betrayal of the non-aggression pact."

Red Army soldiers dance on the street in Berlin
Red Army soldiers celebrated when they finally took BerlinImage: Bundesarchiv-183-E0406-0022-018

Putin would like his domestic public to see the conflict over the commemoration as another instance of Russia standing tall against fascism, in this case, the alleged ultra-nationalism of Ukraine under Petro Poroschenko. The West, by extension, would be betraying that cause.

"The fact the huge majority of Western leaders refuse to participate in 9 May festivities definitely makes it more tempting for Russian leaders to accuse the West, and especially the Baltic States, of harboring neo-Nazism," Erkki Bahovski, an expert at Estonia's International Center for Defense Studies, told DW. "But I believe that after the creation of a parallel universe in the media, the Russian leaders simply do not understand what the West is complaining about."

So will everyday Russians buy the narrative about the West betraying the anti-fascist cause? Or will the commemoration controversy backfire on Putin?

Victims and heroes

Smith says that Russia's maneuvering ahead of May 8 may also be aimed at getting Russians to accept the privations that have come in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Essentially Putin may be using the example of World War II to encourage Russians to ask not what Moscow can do for them, but what they can do for Moscow.

"Russians have a longstanding, interwoven narrative of victimization and sacrifice that fits memories of wartime and that is being invoked in response to sanctions," Smith says. "It is quite helpful for Putin to praise Russians for their willingness to reduce their own consumption without complaining."

Moscow's Night Wolves motorbike club president Alexander Zaldostanov and Putin ride alongside each other
The 'Night Wolves' are just one bone of contentionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/ITAR-TASS/A. Pavlishak

But invoking the past carries the risk for Putin that people will actually remember it.

"The anniversary serves to bolster the Russian identity since the Great Victory (as the Russians call it) forms the single basis for the new Russian identity and this is the main question for Mr. Putin," Bahovski explained. "Hostility towards the West may still serve as a double-edged sword here because even Soviet textbooks mentioned that the Soviet Union was allied with the US, the UK and France. Therefore the complete U-turn in the light of the WWII anniversary could be even counter-productive. Let us remember that some years ago the Soviet and German war veterans had the parade together in Moscow. The absence of Western leaders from the parade will not go unnoticed."

In any case, Putin's would-be party could turn into a fiasco. Only a few days before the military parade in Moscow it remains unclear which, if any, major representatives will be attending. Greece has hemmed and hawed, and Czech President Milos Zeman told a radio station he would be coming only to later backtrack and say he was not.
Even eccentric North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un decided that, contrary to early reports, he won't be making the trip to Moscow - something that may have come as a relief to the Kremlin.

Russia can count on a few guests. Fellow BRICS members India, South Africa and (most importantly) China will have high-level representation in Moscow. And Angela Merkel is making a conciliatory gesture. While the German chancellor won't be at the military parade, she is slated to visit the Russian capital on May 10 to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - together with Vladimir Putin.