Victory Day – Then and Now

RS-24 Yars Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on parade Red Square, 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade, Kremlin photo.

After years of bloody fighting, massive destruction, and unspeakable human suffering on May 8, 1945, at 23:01 hours Central European time, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Due to the difference in time zones in Moscow, the official German surrender and cease fire went into effect at 00:01 local time on May 9th. In the victorious nations masses of people took to the streets on May 8-9th, 1945, and celebrated with festivities, military parades, and religious services. For the United States and the British Commonwealth nations however, the war against Imperial Japan still loomed large. The Battle of Okinawa (March-September, 1945) was still raging; Japanese soldiers were fighting ferociously to the death for every foot of territory and Kamikaze fighters swarming Navy ships at an appalling cost in blood and treasure. Before the ink dried on the German surrender, American servicemen in Europe began receiving orders for eventual transfer to the Pacific Theater. This put a damper on celebrations at home and abroad. However, for the Soviet Union the Great Patriotic War was officially over as the Soviets were, for the moment, still honoring their neutrality pact with Japan. 

Remastered and colorized footage of the first Moscow Victory Day Parade on May 9, 1945. The parade included 40,000 personnel, 1,850 military vehicles, and lasted over two hours.

In what later evolved into a national holiday of celebration and remembrance, on May 9, 1945, Soviet propagandists organized the first massive celebration and military parade marking the end of World War II. The date, still commemorated throughout the Russian Federation and most former Soviet Republics, is simply known as Victory Day. Many towns, cities, and military installations in Russia hold local celebrations. Since 1945 however, the “big event” has been the military parade on Red Square in Moscow. During the Soviet era it was also an opportunity to showcase the latest military hardware and other technological advancements as well as messages from political leaders. In their celebrations the Soviets largely ignored the contributions of other nations in the defeat of Nazi Germany, highlighting instead the triumph of socialist virtues over fascism. After the fall of communism and the opening of Russia, the contributions of other Allied nations were recognized during the festivities. During the 65th Victory Day celebrations in 2010, military contingencies from several Western nations marched in the parade on Red Square. 

Foreign contingents from other Allied nations pass in review at the 2010 Moscow Victory Day Parade.

In recent years the Moscow Victory Day parade has continued to be a military showcase for the Russian Federation. Normally the event features more than ten thousand active duty Russian Federation servicemen, dozens of military vehicles, and a mass fly past of military aircraft. 17,600 service members marched in the 2019 parade, along with a column of 190 military vehicles and 3,800 crew members including the T-14 Armata main battle tank. The 2018 parade featured a fly past of seventy-eight aircraft and the debut of Russia’s fifth generation Su-57 stealth fighter. 

Russian Su-25 aircraft participate in the 2022 Moscow Victory Day Parade, Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images.

Victory Day Parade 2023 

The event, while always an opportunity for Russian leaders to take the bully pulpit and speak to the world, has increasingly become a platform for Vladimir Putin to filibuster his revisionist views of history. The Russian dictator, who has been the keynote speaker at the Moscow Victory Day Parade for the last sixteen years, again took center stage at the 2023 event and railed against western interests who he alleged “want to carve up” Russia. Putin went on to repeat his cynical claim that Russia is fighting a defensive war in Ukraine and that NATO and the West are the true aggressors in the conflict. He went on to draw comparisons between the 1941-1945 fight against Hitlerite invaders and the “sacred” cause for which Russians are fighting in Ukraine. The dictator praised the “heroic” Russian Federation forces fighting in Ukraine for the country’s future. This, against the Stalinesque backdrop of police and FSB personnel on the streets of Moscow, ready to arrest anyone who dared speak out in opposition to the conflict. 

Also in contrast with past tradition, this year’s Victory Day Parade was only forty-five minutes long (as opposed to the usual one and a half to two hours) and featured only a fraction of the personnel and armament usually on display. Only 8,000 service members participated in the parade and the festivities did not include a military flyover. Most troops who participated in the 2023 parade were police forces, service academy cadets, and support troops. According to British intelligence, the only deployable units that participated this year were military police and rail transport formations. Normally numerous elite units are represented in the parade. The 2021 parade included 197 military vehicles; this year fifty-one participated, only one of which was a tracked armored vehicle – a vintage T-34 World War II era tank. Likely the same T-34 that we have seen in past Victory Day parades. Most of the vehicles were light wheeled fighting vehicles such as the VPK-3927 Volk and VPK-7829 Bumerang

A lone T-34 tank led this column of fifty light military vehicles onto Red Square during the 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade, Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo.
A miliary band of Russian cadets passes in review at the 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade, Alexander Avilov, Moskva News Agency/AFP

Many military experts and intelligence agencies have taken the scaled back Victory Day Parade as an indicator of how over a year of combat in Ukraine has affected Russian Federation armed forces. Of the military units that participated in the 2019 Victory Day Parade, several have been reported in contact along front lines in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict including elements of the following units:

336th Independent Guards Biaystok Marine Brigade of the Baltic Fleet

61st Kirkinesskaya Red Banner Marine Brigade of the Northern Fleet

98th Guards Airborne Division

29th Independent Railway Brigade of the Russian Railway Troops

2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division

4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division

27th Independent Guards Sevastopol Motor Rifle Brigade

To date, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims to have destroyed or captured 3,736 main battle tanks, 7,275 infantry fighting vehicles, 3,039 artillery pieces, 555 multiple rocket launchers, 308 anti-aircraft warfare systems, 308 fixed wing aircraft, and 294 helicopters. Additionally, the Ukrainians claim to have inflicted over 196,000 Russian killed in action. While the numbers of military hardware captured or destroyed is verifiable, enemy personnel losses are more difficult to calculate. Western military intelligence agencies have different estimates which, if accurate, are significant. In April, 2023, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency estimated 189,500-223,000 Russian casualties. This includes 35,500-43,000 killed in action and 154,000-180,000 wounded. On May 1, 2023, a White House report estimated that Russia has had 100,000 casualties just since December 2022, including 20,000 killed.

This, combined with reports that Russians are fielding antiquated museum relics on the battlefield to replace losses in tanks and armored vehicles and it’s no wonder the 2023 Victory Day Parade was a “pared down” event. Everything the Russians have in the way of combat power is either in strategic reserve or deployed in Ukraine. Furthermore, it is evident that Russia is unable to replace battlefield losses in personnel and equipment rapidly enough to conduct any large-scale offensive. As a case in point, the recently much hyped Russian winter “offensive” measured its gains in meters and cost in thousands of body bags, scores of wrecked armored vehicles, and tens of downed aircraft.

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