Russian President Vladimir Putin reviewed a spectacular Red Square military parade on Wednesday, a patriotic display critics said was designed to lift his lower-than-usual ratings on the eve of a countrywide vote that could extend his rule until 2036.
Putin watched as intercontinental ballistic missile launchers trundled past, nuclear-capable bombers flew overhead and columns of tanks and more than 14,000 troops, including some from allies like China, marched past under hot sunshine in Moscow.
The parade, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Second World War victory over the Nazis, was postponed from May 9 because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, but critics said it was still irresponsible to go ahead with it.
The Kremlin dismissed that assertion, saying new daily infections, though still in the thousands, were on the wane, especially in the Russian capital, the original epicentre of the outbreak, and that all safety precautions were taken.
Volunteers gave masks and gloves to those watching on Red Square and ordered them to sit two seats apart.
Putin made no mention of the coronavirus pandemic in his speech, tacitly reinforcing his claim the previous day that Russia has passed the most dangerous stage in the pandemic.
Russia on Wednesday reported 7,176 new cases of the novel coronavirus, pushing its countrywide case total to 606,881, the world’s third highest tally.
The country’s coronavirus crisis response centre said 154 people had died in the past 24 hours, bringing the official death toll to 8,513.
Leaders from some foreign countries attend
Putin, flanked by veterans, did not wear a mask, but people around him had been tested for the coronavirus, including veterans quarantined at a resort outside Moscow beforehand.
Thousands of people thronged Moscow’s streets to watch tanks roll through the city on what was a public holiday.
Putin struck a conciliatory tone toward the West, despite complaining beforehand about what he called attempts by some European countries to rewrite history.
He said Moscow would never forget the contribution made by the Soviet Union’s wartime allies, including their opening of a second front in 1944.
Putin also made an indirect reference to his desire for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a summit to try to tackle the world’s problems.
“We are open to dialogue and co-operation on the most current international questions,” said Putin.
“Among them is the creation of a reliable and general system of security, which the complex fast-changing modern world needs. Only together can we defend it from new dangerous threats,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Putin had hoped to host the leaders of France and China at the parade.
In the event, around 10 world leaders attended, most of them from ex-Soviet countries. The president of Kyrgyzstan had to drop out at the last minute after two people who accompanied him to Moscow tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival.
Polls in constitutional vote open Thursday
The parade was held on the eve of a countrywide vote, from June 25 until July 1, on constitutional changes, including an amendment that would allow Putin two more six-year terms as president if re-elected.
Current constitutional limits bar him from seeking re-election when his mandate ends in 2024.
Polls show people’s willingness to protest has risen as lower oil prices and a prolonged lockdown have battered the economy, unemployment has risen and a Kremlin plan to reverse years of falling real wages has been knocked off course.
Sergei Aleksashenko, an economist who has been critical of Putin, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Tuesday that the Russian leader was determined to hold the parade despite the pandemic.
“Vladimir Putin believes that the parade is a reaffirmation of his greatness, the greatness of the country and of our historical memory,” said Aleksashenko.