Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin Army

In 1787 Catherine the Great, Tsarina (Queen) of Russia, took a trip to inspect the Crimea. This was part of the territory which Russia had just conquered after a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire. The trip took place with her court and was organized by Grigory Potemkin, one of her favorite courtiers. However, Catherine expressed that she was concerned that the people in these new areas might not be favorable to her and living under her rule.

Therefore Potemkin arranged for something quite extraordinary and probably quite expensive as well. He had many false villages constructed along the route that Catherine was to take on her trip. Then, as she passed these false villages, many people were to emerge from the houses and cheered her on her way. Thus she would be given the impression that she was popular. However, this impression would be completely artificial and false. Ever since that time, the expression “Potemkin Village” has referred to literal or figurative construction that provides a façade to make things appear better than they really are.

This week on May 9th, Russia held its big annual military parade in Red Square, Moscow. This was to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Over the years, this parade has become more and more triumphal as the great genuine achievements of the 1940s have been used to project prestige and power in the present. This was a feature of the Soviet Union.

If anything, it has become even more of a prestige event for the modern Russian Federation. And so, rows and rows of soldiers have continued to march smartly in front of the politicians on the podium on the top of Lenin’s mausoleum. These soldiers have also shared the parade with tanks, armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles. There is usually a flypast of jet warplanes. And if the Russians could find a way to sail a warship through Red Square, they would probably do that as well.



This year saw more of the same, except that the flypast was canceled, ostensibly due to bad weather. Some observers had found this a bit strange as this flypast had always gone ahead in previous years, even when the weather forecast was bad. In such circumstances, special aircraft would be used to seed the clouds around the Moscow area to disperse them before the parade.

The idea was that nothing as inconvenient as low-lying clouds should be allowed to rain on this prestigious parade. But this was not the case this year, and no flypast took place. From the television coverage of the event witnessed by this writer, it did not appear that the weather was bad. Some have wondered if the weather was used as a convenient excuse to explain the air force’s absence. After all, there could well be other good reasons for their not being available. There is a war going on 500 kilometers away in Ukraine. Perhaps the Russian air force is occupied with operations there? That would be plausible. Or perhaps it is currently unable to muster enough serviceable aircraft. It is certainly the case that media reports have been showing losses of several aircraft recently.

parade puttin


In fact, taking a step back to view the broader picture, this whole question of the war shines the spotlight on the wisdom of even having this parade at all. What is the point of it, given current events? It is billed as a Victory Day parade. But the victory over the Germans was 77 years ago. Meanwhile, in the war in Ukraine, that is, there has so far been no victory in the war that is going on at present.

In fact, there appear to have been many retreats and defeats of various sorts, and even when the ground has been taken, it has usually been quite vulnerable to counterattack. At this stage, it is useful to consider some of the media reports coming from the battlegrounds in Ukraine. And thanks to various brave reporters on the ground, there is no shortage of these. Not to mention that there are soldiers on both sides communicating on the phone and sending videos of what is going on; and in addition to that, there is also video footage coming from drones that are active over the battlefields.

From all these sources, it would appear that the Russian military machine is experiencing a very hard time. For a start, how Russian tanks ran out of fuel within 100 kilometers of Russian territory suggests that this war was not well planned at all by the attacking Russians. No modern army can possibly operate without good supply logistics to back it up.

Soldiers need to eat, and they also need regular supplies of water, ammunition, medical supplies, and spare parts to maintain their vehicles, especially the tanks and other supporting vehicles. But by all accounts, the Russian army has been unable to ensure that their units on the front lines have received regular supplies of any of these essentials. So instead of fighting, the troops have had to go scrounging for food by raiding local houses. Instead of moving around in their tanks, soldiers have had to abandon them through a lack of fuel and spare parts. Hence the embarrassing spectacle of undamaged Russian tanks being towed away by tractors driven by Ukrainian farmers. How are the mighty fallen!

russian soldier


Then there has been a fiasco in communications. Russian units have been giving and receiving instructions using open speech on mobile telephones. Open speech refers to the fact that this speech has not been scrambled or put into any sort of code. Thus, the Ukrainians can listen in on Russian calls because their telephone company still controls the various mobile masts. It is strange for a modern army to use the enemy’s phone network to give away vital communications. Did they not realize that the Ukrainians would also be able to hear them and track the location of both the person talking and the person listening?

There is also the concerning fact that the Russians have been sending young conscripts into Ukraine when their own rules stated that they were not supposed to do this. Putin appeared on television, saying that no conscripts would be sent. And yet, there these conscripts were, in military units in Ukraine. The obvious questions are these; does Putin know what is happening in his own army? Do the generals not tell him the truth? Or, despite his denials and the law, has he agreed to send young (and by definition, untrained and inexperienced) conscript soldiers into Ukraine as cannon fodder? But the soldiers themselves are very unhappy about the whole situation.

A video report said that one young soldier blamed his commander Colonel Yury Medvedev for the deaths of his friends. So this soldier drove his tank at the Colonel and injured both his legs. The Colonel later died of his injuries. There have also been reports of tanks being sabotaged by their own crews, who were disgusted by their officers’ way they had been lied to. So the crews have been causing damage to the tank in one way or another and simply reporting that the machine is out of action. “Sorry Sir, but we’ll just have to sit this one out.”

Here is an interesting fact about the Russian military. The Kremlin spent over $65 billion on armed services in 2021. There have also been other large amounts in previous years. Various commentators have been wondering where exactly all this money has gone? Soldiers have been sent into combat with munitions that don’t explode, radios that don’t work (hence the need to communicate with mobiles), and pathetically poor examples of first aid kits.

It is worth noting that corruption plays a big part in the life of modern Russia. In 2011, the writer Luke Harding referred to it as a Mafia State, and as Putin has strengthened his grip on power, things have only become worse. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that some of that large military budget was diverted towards someone’s luxury villa or flashy yacht. It is impossible to know whether that would be Putin’s or one of his oligarch cronies, or maybe even a top general feathering his nest. But it does seem unlikely that the Russian military received the full benefit of that $65 billion. Certainly, nothing of note was spent on those first aid kits.



And this is where the narrative comes back to Grigory Potemkin. For the purposes of this article, he can be compared to his current reincarnation, Vladimir Putin. Potemkin erected those false villages to impress and conceal the truth from Catherine the Great. Did they fool her? Historical accounts do not show whether she knew the truth or not. Maybe she did not want to know. But Putin has put on this military parade with these rows of soldiers in their nice uniforms, all holding their excellent clean weapons, and these nice smart-looking tanks driving across the square in formation. But it is no more than a show. The real Russian army has been shown up for what it actually is; a Potemkin Army. They are all sparkle and polish but with no substance.

But the parade went ahead anyway, minus those aircraft, of course. So what for? Whom was Putin trying to impress? For that, it is necessary to consider his viewers in Russia. Most people there receive all their information from Russian State-controlled media, principally the Kremlin-approved television stations. For now, these people have no idea how badly the war is going. The government tells them every night that Russia is winning the special military operation. Showing a smart gleaming army on parade helps to bolster the charade. Of course, the awkward part about his Victory Parade was that Putin did not actually have a current victory to report, hence the importance of playing up the victory three-quarters of a century ago. In Russia, the spirit of Grigory Potemkin is alive and well.

You might also like
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.