A Russian Iskander-M missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 7, 2022.

A Russian Iskander-M missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 7, 2022. ( Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

With the annual celebration of its victory over Nazi Germany and President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a fifth term just ahead, Russia has mounted a month-long exhibition of military equipment captured in the war in Ukraine with the message that even as it fights the entire “collective West,” victory is inevitable.

The exhibition at Moscow’s Victory Museum on Poklonnaya Hill comes just before a May 9 Victory Day celebration that could not be more different from last year’s when Russia was facing battlefield setbacks and a Ukrainian summer counteroffensive powered by new Western military equipment. Instead, this year, Ukrainian forces have been driven out of several front-line villages as weapons supplies have stalled.

The Victory Day celebration has grown in political importance with the invasion and the increased militarization of Russian society, as Putin seeks to equate Ukraine’s leaders with World War II Nazis and portray Russia as a nation saving the world with its “special military operation.”

The “trophies,” which included an American M1 main battle tank, were surrounded by dozens of red flags bearing the word “Victory!” It was an exhibition full of contradictions: there was triumphalism that Russia had captured the Western military equipment, even as the propagandists sneered at its quality, as if capturing them was not a challenge.

Putin is riding high after a March election decried by Western governments as flawed that delivered him at least six more years in power and the battlefield advances in Ukraine, and he is brimming with confidence ahead of his inauguration on Tuesday and the Victory Day parade two days after.

With Ukraine still hampered by weapons and personnel shortages, Russian forces are besieging the strategically important town of Chasiv Yar, an elevated location that could open the way to further advances. The United States passed a long delayed $60 billion military aid package last month, but its effect has yet to be felt on the battlefield.

Maj. Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence, told the Economist that the fall of Chasiv Yar was probably a matter of time, adding that Ukraine’s position was as bad as it had been since the first days of the invasion.

More than 30 pieces of military hardware from 12 countries were displayed at the exhibition, marked with the flags of their origin countries, including the U.S. Abrams tank, an M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, a German Leopard 2 tank, and British Husky and Mastiff armored vehicles, as well as U.S. howitzers.

Many of these were sent with great fanfare to Ukraine for its much vaunted summer offensive, which later bogged down against heavy Russian defenses.

“Our victory is inevitable,” trumpeted the billboards around the venue.

The Kremlin and Russian military have used propaganda and repression throughout the war to depict Ukraine as not a real country but part of Russia and led by “Nazis.” Russia criminalized criticism of the military and suppressed its own war casualty figures, estimated by U.S. intelligence at more than 300,000 killed and wounded.

Russia on Friday sentenced antiwar activist Angel Nikolayev in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk to 15 years in prison for alleged terrorism and grave desecration in relation to antiwar activism, including setting fire to a military enlistment office and painting flags on the graves of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. The prosecution charged that the symbols Nikolayev painted were “visually similar to Nazi symbols,” a claim he denied.

At the exhibition, a Russian soldier with the call sign Syria and armed with a collapsible pointer stick, explained the features of the Abrams tank to visitors and journalists, pointing at shrapnel holes in the vehicle.

The Abrams was “no miracle weapon,” he said in video aired by TV Zvezda, owned and run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. “There is also a political context here: Here it is, this vehicle in the center of Moscow, bowing to the Russian soil.

“An American tank in the center of Moscow during the May holidays is not at all what [the enemy] would like to see there. Especially when our most important holiday - Victory Day - is approaching.”

Another serviceman with the call sign Java prodded at the M2 Bradley, claiming that it was poorly designed for the Ukraine operation and often sank into the soil.

Zvezda TV anchor Irina Losik claimed without evidence that many Western journalists had written about “what a colossal humiliation this exhibition of trophies on Poklonnaya Hill is for the entire NATO bloc,” adding that Russian engineers would take the vehicles apart to learn about them.

“This equipment has not even had time to fight in the war. This is a confirmation of my words that the machinery is defeatable, with poor cross-country ability, and is expensive to maintain,” Losik said. Ukraine’s military, she claimed, often abandoned Western military vehicles that “get stuck in the first puddle in the fields.”

While January polling by Levada Center, an independent polling agency, indicates that most Russians - 52 percent - want an end to the war, support for the actions of Russia’s military in Ukraine also remains high at 77 percent, with the same percentage convinced that the war will end in Russian victory.

The exhibition appears partly designed to convey to Russians the difference between May 2023 when Russian forces had suffered successive retreats and setbacks, and now. In last year’s scaled-back parade, only one World War II-era T-34 tank was displayed.

Since then, Russia has ramped up military production, prevented Ukraine’s breakthrough to the southern coast during the counteroffensive last year, and made advances.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed Friday that Russia had taken control of 547 square kilometers of territory in occupied Ukraine since early January, referring to the region as the “new Russian territories.”

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