Big guns roll through Red Square once more

Seventeen years have gone by since T-90 tanks last rolled across the historic cobbles of Moscow’s Red Square. But on Friday they were back — with an unmistakable diesel-fumed roar — and trundling past Lenin’s tomb and the fantastic domes of St Basil’s Cathedral.

Led by a rather tubby general holding a sword, Russia on Friday held its annual Victory Day parade. It marked the 63rd anniversary of the defeat of fascist Germany in the World War II. This one, though, was different.

For the first time since the Cold War the Kremlin showed off its heavy weaponry, reviving a practice that fell into disuse in the democratic 1990s.

Over the past eight years, Vladimir Putin, the president recently turned prime minister, has transformed Russia into an authoritarian state.

Along the way, he has revived many of the potent symbols of Soviet greatness — the Soviet anthem, the red star and, on Friday, the 22m long inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), wheeled incongruously past the GUM shopping arcade, and the boutiques of Gucci and Prada.

Putin’s apparent aim is to send a signal to the rest of the world: that after a period of weakness in the 1990s, Russia is again a great power that can’t be juggled with. In short, Russia is back.

And so, for the first time since 1990, a year before the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s military brought out its kit: jeeps, T-90 tanks, long-range anti-aircraft missiles and the Topol-M, a vast nuclear rocket capable of whamming Washington.

Up in a near cloudless blue sky, whirling helicopters carried the Russian flag; Russia’s strategic Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers rent the air, sending crows fleeing over the Kremlin’s ramparts; and MiG-29s sparkled fireworks. Putin watched the parade from a special tribune. Next to him was the second most important politician — Dmitry Medvedev, who took over Putin’s old job of president on Wednesday.

Western defence specialists pronounce themselves unimpressed by Russia’s displays — described by one as ”willy-waving”. They snidely point out most hardware dates from the Brezhnev era; the conscript army is also mired in scandals over bullying of recruits.

”If they wish to get out their old equipment and take it for a spin, they’re more than welcome to do so,” a Pentagon spokesperson said this week when asked whether the Bush administration considered Russia a threat.

Britain’s defence attaché in Moscow, Andy Verdon, was less grudging. ”Their kit may be old, but it’s effective. A rifle bullet fired from a Napoleonic weapon will still kill you,” he pointed out, as soldiers decked out in World War II uniforms trooped past, one holding a banner with Lenin’s face on it.

Gordon Brown, and other Nato leaders, shouldn’t be worried about a resurgent Russia, the attaché said. ”This is a statement that ‘we are proud of ourselves and back on the world stage’. But we shouldn’t take this as an aggressive act. Nor are we quaking in our boots. We are not returning to the Cold War.”

Other analysts noted that the source of Russia’s clout these days is oil and gas, not missiles. ”Russia wields its influence in very different ways. It would be more appropriate to parade through Red Square with oil derricks and pipelines,” Sam Greene of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow told the Guardian. He added: ”You flaunt what you’ve got.”

”The whole ‘My ICBM is bigger than your ICBM’ is so passé,” commented Robert Hewson, editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons. ”It’s just gesture politics. Anyone who knows about the state of Russia’s military knows investment, technology and production have withered over the past 20 years.”

Nevertheless, much of Friday’s parade was impressive and graceful. Red Army war veterans, together with their grandchildren, took their places on viewing platforms. About 8 000 parade troops in modish uniforms marched as a brass band belted out martial tunes.

”We can sleep easily at night with an army like this,” said Yakob Vasilyevich, a war fighter pilot. Another spectator, Irina Antonova, said: ”Europe has always coveted our territory — just look at Hitler and Napoleon. We are proud our country is strong and able to defend itself.” — Â

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