When Vladimir Putin presides over Russia’s largest military parade in post-Soviet history on Saturday, the guest list will make clear just how much the country’s standing in the west has deteriorated.
Only 27 foreign dignitaries have accepted the Russian president’s invitation to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the victory in the second world war, less than half the number who attended 10 years ago.
Virtually the entire western world is boycotting the event, a result of the breakdown in Russia’s relations with the US and the EU over its role in the war in Ukraine.
As western leaders shun the event, Mr Putin will host China’s president Xi Jinping, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, Cuba’s Raul Castro, Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. The UN’s secretary general Ban Ki-Moon will also attend.
Beyond diplomatic protocol, the line-up on Red Square has become a reflection of Russia’s new role in the international order and its foreign policy challenges. “Russia is being pushed back into its traditional position between the west and the east, and this shift is here to stay,” says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center.
In a sign of just how deep the divide now runs between Russia and the US, American participants in the Elbe Group, a group of retired senior US and Russian military and intelligence officials which constitutes a semi-official channels for bilateral dialogue, paint a deeply pessimistic picture.
“[T]he more open we are, the more we understand how far apart we are,” they concluded in internal notes of a group meeting in March.
According to the paper, the Russian participants reiterated how threatened Moscow feels by Nato moves to increase its military presence close to its borders, and made it clear that Russia would use its nuclear weapons against Nato.
Russian participants told their US counterparts that Russia felt threatened by a host of negative consequences from the breakdown of a world order dominated by the US and the Soviet Union as two superpowers. At the same time, Russian participants suggested the two sides resume intelligence sharing, a move the American participants interpret as an attempt to restart dialogue and force American acceptance of the “new status quo” after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In response to cooler relations with the west, Russia is looking elsewhere for friends. “Moscow is being isolated in the west, but they are making a real effort to approach non-western partners,” says Mr Trenin.
Among those attending the celebrations, China stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Not only have western financial sanctions left Russia deeply dependent on Chinese loans and investment, Russian government officials are also keenly aware that their global influence is waning while Beijing’s is growing.
Russia is therefore trying to balance its ties with China through relations with other Asian countries such as India and Vietnam. Moscow is also trying to expand its footprint in Latin America and working hard to keep its influence in Cuba amid Havana’s détente with Washington.
But so far, the smattering of non-western partners falls far short of a coherent alliance system fit for challenging the US’ superpower role.
“Even collectively, all these countries don’t add up to anything meaningful,” says Mr Trenin. And although Moscow is associated with several broader groupings such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organistion, there is no clear strategy on how to use these groupings.
With India and Pakistan set to join the SCO as full members this summer, and Iran a possibility once UN sanctions are lifted, some Russian security experts believe that this could eventually make the SCO a major non-western security alliance.
Around Victory Day, there was little sign of collective solidarity from these groupings. Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, who had said she would attend, sent her regrets, leaving the Brics one short. Even representation from the Eurasian Economic Union, the economic club composed of Mr Putin’s staunchest allies, is incomplete with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko staying away.
While Moscow says political leaders from Cyprus, Greece, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will attend on Saturday, analysts say partial support from some EU governments would only allow Russia to cancel out pressure from those who want an even more hawkish EU line towards Moscow.
That pressure was on clear display on Thursday in the Polish city of Gdansk. At an event organised as an alternative to Mr Putin’s parade, eastern European leaders warned Europe of ignoring the lessons of the second world war. “[Ukrainian] President Petro Poroshenko knows it best that evil is with us now. We know it in Brussels,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.
“This is why so many of us did not go to Moscow for the victory parade,” said Mr Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, which has led EU calls for a tougher stance against Russia.
Joined in his warnings by the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria, Mr Poroshenko alleged that Russian military weaponry used two days ago in eastern Ukraine would be participating in what he called Moscow’s “parade of cynicism”.
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