On May 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin will preside over the Moscow Victory Day Parade in Red Square, which will celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945. Carnegie Europe asked a group of experts whether Western leaders should attend the event.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform
Western leaders do not need to attend Moscow’s Victory Day Parade on May 9. Only twice, in 1995 and 2005, have many of them participated since the first such celebration was held in 1965.
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This time, there are both contemporary and historical reasons to stay away. First, Russia is occupying Crimea, and Russian forces are fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine. High-level Western participation in Moscow would imply acceptance of this aggression against a neighbor. Russia could also claim that attendance indicates agreement with the idea that Russians today are fighting fascism, as their ancestors did in the Great Patriotic War.
Second, Western leaders would implicitly endorse a distorted portrait of the Second World War that ignores the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the role of the Soviet Union’s allies in enabling it to keep fighting. Moscow’s view also overlooks the fact that for Central and Eastern Europe, 1945 brought the imposition of a Communist regime almost as brutal as the Nazi occupation.
So let Western leaders commemorate all those who died in the war and the Holocaust, and even pay special honor to the Soviet Union’s millions of dead—many of them Ukrainians and Belarusians. But let them not be party to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerent myth-making, and the idea of Moscow as the world capital of antifascism.
Piotr BurasHead of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations
The central role of the Red Army in defeating the Third Reich remains indisputable. This is true not only in Germany but also in Eastern and Central Europe, where liberation from the murderous Nazi regime was followed by occupation and the imposition of Communist rule. And yet, accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Moscow in the midst of the war in Ukraine would be a mistake.
The liberation of Europe in 1945 was the first step to establishing a durable peace order, which was then formalized in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Russia’s policy toward Ukraine is an attempt to dismantle the foundations of this order.
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The argument that one should separate today’s tensions from the remembrance of the past is untenable for two reasons. First, it was Putin who declared the politics of memory a powerful instrument to be (mis)used in the current conflict. Moscow, which rightly praises itself for defeating fascism in 1945, pretends to fight it again in Ukraine, while in fact, Russia’s actions are set to undermine democracy in the country. At the same time, Moscow supports right-wing and, indeed, fascist political movements in the European Union.
Second, this misuse of history is the core of Putin’s propaganda inside Russia. The West must not help him play this game. There are other ways to honor the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives for Europe’s peace.
Jonathan EyalInternational director at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies
Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that this year’s May 9 parade in Moscow’s Red Square will be a “day of glory, a day of pride for our entire nation, a day of supreme veneration of the victorious generation.”
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Sadly, none of this is true, for what the Russians seek to promote is a blinkered view of history. In that view, the story of the Soviet-Nazi collaboration that preceded and contributed to the outbreak of World War II is carefully airbrushed out, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that divided Europe between Hitler and Stalin is deemed a necessity, and the subsequent imposition of Soviet rule over Eastern Europe is defended as a just reward.
Even the tragedy of the estimated millions of ordinary Soviet citizens who may have died unnecessarily during the war due to Stalin’s purges of the Red Army is no longer mentioned, lest it interfere with this officially sanctioned tale of victory.
A decade ago, many Western leaders attended a similar military parade organized by Putin. They were present not because they accepted his varnished version of history but because they hoped the event would remind Russians that the West could be their partner. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, however, such hopes have disappeared, as have the reasons for Western leaders to go to Moscow.
Shunning the Russian festivities should not be interpreted as an insult to the terrible wartime sacrifices of the Soviet people, or to their contribution to the Allied victory. Rather, it should be seen as just a snub for the man in the Kremlin who uses history to justify a new division of Europe into spheres of influence—precisely what victory in World War II was designed to banish from the continent.
Joerg ForbrigTransatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Western leaders face a dilemma. On the one hand, they acknowledge the enormous suffering endured by the Soviet peoples during the Second World War and the crucial role played by the Red Army in defeating Nazi Germany. On the other hand, they see how Russian President Vladimir Putin instrumentalizes and manipulates historical memory to boost his standing at home and abroad, and to justify his aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors.
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The challenge for Western leaders is to find a way that allows them to pay tribute to Soviet victims and veterans of World War II while not legitimizing Russia’s current politics as a direct descendant of the Soviet victory in 1945.
No one felt this dilemma more strongly than the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and she has found an elegant and appropriate response. She will not attend the May 9 victory parade, leaving it instead to an international circle of Putin’s autocratic friends to abuse history for Russian power politics today. Instead, she will go to Moscow on the following day to honor the millions of Soviet citizens who suffered, fought, and died as a result of Germany’s aggression against the Soviet Union. This is an example other Western leaders should follow.
István GyarmatiPresident of the International Center for Democratic Transition
The end of World War II was more than a historical event. It was not simply the end of the biggest war of all time but also the end of the most evil regime in history—Nazism. It marked the beginning of the development of a new world order that lasted for some sixty years as well as the start of the triumph of democracy.
Accordingly, every anniversary deserves appropriate commemoration by all. That is especially the case now, when ideologies previously thought to be deeply buried under the ruins of war-torn countries start to reemerge.
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And this is exactly the reason why leaders of democratic countries should not attend the May 9 victory parade. The regime in Moscow is trying to reverse the wheel of history. The regime’s ideology and its ruthless violation of basic norms of international law, of human rights, and of fundamental freedoms make the commemoration into merely an occasion of triumphant nationalism. With its emphasis on the demonstration of aggressive power, this event becomes the exact opposite of what it should be.
However, the West must make clear that its absence is a protest not against the commemoration of the event itself, but against its misuse in support of dictatorship and aggression.
Andres KasekampProfessor of Baltic politics at the Institute of Government and Politics of the University of Tartu
No. It would be inappropriate for Western leaders to go to Moscow while Russia is waging war against Ukraine. Russia has trampled the principles of international order established after the Second World War, including not changing borders by force.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the Great Patriotic War—as the Eastern campaign of World War II is known in Russia—to consolidate Russian identity. His regime is manipulating history by recycling the antifascist narrative to justify war against Ukraine. The premise of Putin’s propaganda offensive is that Russia is resisting Western-sponsored fascism in Ukraine.
Leaders of countries that fought Nazi Germany or were occupied by it should not lend credence to such fabrications. It is also germane to recall that the Nazi-Soviet Pact allowed Adolf Hitler to launch the war and that the Soviet Union shared the spoils in Eastern Europe until it was betrayed by its partner in crime.
Unfortunately, Russia’s May 9 victory parade is not a solemn commemoration of the victims of the war but a celebration of military might. Furthermore, some of those parading this year might have been involved in the war against Ukraine.
While Putin claims that Western sanctions can’t influence Russia, he does care about status and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Respect is what Putin craves most. This is one thing that Western leaders can deny him without any cost.
Andrei KolesnikovSenior associate and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center
Moscow’s World War II victory parade is a muscular display of the force of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. This performance—as well as the state capitalist cronies who are ruling Russia today—has a very weak link to the real history of the war. That is not to speak of the fact that victory in the war is equally important to Ukrainians, Georgians, and the citizens of other former Soviet nations.
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In the Russian consciousness, the Great Patriotic War is a sacred event. And according to Russia’s new eclectic state ideology, the version of the war approved by the authorities cannot be criticized. It was inevitable that Putin would use the war as one of the main sources of the regime’s legitimacy. And this year’s festivities will inflate his charisma (which may become a bubble in a few years).
The regime’s cronies have privatized not only part of Russia’s state budget but also the history of the country, especially the statutory version of the history of the war. In doing so, they are trying to keep their power.
So no, Western leaders should not join in the celebration of one individual’s personal power and witness the demonstration of weapons that could be deployed in the fields of eastern Ukraine.
Jarosław Kuisz and Karolina WiguraEditor in chief of the Polish online weekly newspaper Kultura Liberalna, and head of the political section of Kultura Liberalna
Five years ago, there was no doubt that Western leaders should attend the Victory Day Parade in Moscow. The sixty-fifth anniversary of the victory over fascism was celebrated together as units of Western and Russian armies marched alongside each other in Moscow. And even if aircraft painted only a Russian flag in the sky and the march was a show of Russian military strength, the guests did not mind.
In the years that have passed since, the Ukraine conflict has erupted. Claiming the lives of over 6,000 people so far, the crisis has turned out to be the most lethal since the end of Cold War. While Kiev and Moscow are accusing each other of fueling the conflict, political summits with world leaders do not bring about a solution.
Celebrating the victory over fascism makes sense only if it carries a message of peace, reconciliation, and human rights. Otherwise, the celebration can only be a show of one superpower’s force. Thus, if the leaders of Western countries take part in the World War II parade this year, their presence will be read as a symbolic justification for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics.
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But the West’s lack of consent for Russian propaganda and politics should not mean disregard for the feelings of Russian society toward the Great Patriotic War.
Therefore, although Western leaders should not take part in the parade, they should still visit Russia on May 9 to honor the people who died in World War II, for example by placing flowers on monuments dedicated to them. This would be a gesture of reconciliation toward the Russian public—but not necessarily toward the Kremlin.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
World War II began in response to the German and Soviet invasions of Poland and the Soviet annexation of the three independent Baltic states. The prelude to the war, of course, was Germany’s annexation of the sovereign state of Austria and part of Czechoslovakia.
It is therefore hard to see how democratic leaders can boost a new European strongman who has annexed part of one UN-recognized sovereign state, Ukraine, and de facto incorporated regions of another, Georgia. As former British prime minister William Gladstone put it when Britain was quarrelling with United States in the nineteenth century, “the arbitrament of the court is preferable to the arbitrament of the sword.”
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has undermined the post-1945 European contract that law replaces the illegal use of armed power. There was no attempt to win back sovereignty and democracy for Soviet Eastern Europe by armed force. Putin has revived every European worst fear that might is right. He has undermined the international rule of law that governs interstate relations.
Therefore, while everyone should recall the sacrifices made by Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and other Soviet peoples between 1941 and 1945, it is not appropriate to salute the man who has reintroduced the annexation of another state’s sovereign territory as an acceptable practice for a European power.
Marek MagierowskiColumnist for Polish weekly Do Rzeczy
Rewriting the history of World War II and whitewashing the Stalinist terror have been recurrent themes during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Brazen lies and shameless manipulations are being used to glorify the Soviet past. This is particularly abominable to Poles and Balts, whose countries were invaded by the Red Army seventy-five years ago and who are now branded as fascists.
Poles do remember the sacrifice of the Soviet soldiers who liberated Poland in 1945, but they cannot forget the Katyn massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals by the Soviet secret police in 1940. And it can’t be denied—although it is largely forgotten—that it was Hitler and Stalin who started the war.
The Moscow parade is not about history. It’s about propaganda. By attending this mendacious spectacle, Western leaders would be signing up to Putin’s skewed version of the twentieth century. Moreover, their presence would be used by the state-controlled Russian media as a pretext to show the reestablished unity of the antifascist camp.
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At the same time, there would be a nauseating mantra of accusations against the alleged fascist junta in Kyiv and its fascist allies in Warsaw, Vilnius, and Riga. Another episode of Ukraine bashing—only this time with unwitting assistance from some Western politicians.
Playing Putin’s games, especially on his turf, is extremely risky. Skipping the parade seems to be the only wise choice.