MOSCOW -- Celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the allied forces over the Nazi-led axis in Europe last Saturday were a stark reminder of Russia's deteriorating relations with the world. Leaders from most major nations did not attend the event.
Only Russia's closest allies, such as those from former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as Cuba, Vietnam and China, sent their leaders or top officials to attend. All told, just about 20 countries were represented. This was a far cry from the 60th anniversary, which drew representatives from more than 50 countries, including U.S. President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The celebrations 10 years ago focused on peace and reconciliation.
This time the event emphasized very different points. The most high-profile guest last Saturday was Chinese President Xi Jinping. He sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shots of the two leaders smiling as they talked were often shown throughout coverage of the event, cementing the impression of good relations between the two powers.
A year ago, Russia took the Crimea from Ukraine. It was the first annexation of a sovereign nation's territory by force by a major power since WWII, and it outraged the world community. But at home, the action was portrayed quite differently, instead, it was shown to be Russia's first victory since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By fanning national pride and anti-U.S. sentiment, Putin and his administration boosted public support. In Moscow, signs carrying the local word for victory are seen everywhere and song, popular at the moment, calls for people to march forward as the flame of victory burns.
Russia's might was on display front and center at Saturday's memorial celebrations in Red Square. Some 16,000 soldiers and columns of military machines, such as tanks and mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, were paraded in front of onlookers.
President Putin thanked the WWII allies for the victory over Nazi Germany in his speech, but he also covertly criticized the U.S., saying "We have seen attempts to create a unipolar world, we see momentum building toward bloc thinking."
Complex politics, alliances and power conflicts caused the first two world wars. Now, Russia's attitude is raising concerns that increased tensions between it and the West could once again be putting the world on a path to war. But today's political climate is vastly different from that of the two great wars because the global community is now deeply interdependent economically, according to Robin Niblett, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the U.K.
Niblett's point is clearly visible in Russia's current economic struggle. The country's forced annexation of the Crimea brought about economic sanctions imposed by a range of countries. The resulting plunge of the ruble, coupled with the global commodity slump, has dealt the Russian economy a severe blow.
New playing field
In today's world, where the economy holds strong sway over politics, China, not Russia, is the one yielding overwhelming power. During the 2008 global financial crisis, China backstopped the world economy by unleashing 4 trillion yuan ($644.2 billion) in fiscal spending.
China's financial might was also clearly demonstrated in its efforts to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Although widely seen as a clear challenge to the U.S.-led post-WWII global financial order, the U.K., Germany and France decided to follow Beijing's call to participate in the bank's creation. Even the Philippines and Vietnam, both involved in bitter territorial disputes with China, have decided to join the AIIB. As a result, the U.S. and Japan have now found themselves in a weakened position, having refused involvement in the bank's creation, citing its lack of transparency.
Unlike Russia, increasingly isolated for its reliance on force, China has been able to boost its global influence with economic power. President Xi's unabashed behavior in Moscow signaled to the world the industrial giant's intention to continue using its economic power to extend its sphere of influence in politics and diplomacy.
China's strategies are not the same for all nations. "I would like to hear your view on the development of the Sino-Japan relationship," Xi told Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a summit meeting in April. Shortly before this, China had invited Vietnam's leader to Beijing to sign an economic cooperation agreement.
However, mindful of its slowing economy, China is showing friendly signs in the economic arena toward countries traditionally considered potential enemies. The approach of economy before politics seems to be working well for China. The strategy has raised its international profile without repeating the mistakes made by many major global powers before
"I extend my gratitude to the representatives of the countries that fought Nazism and Japanese militarism," Putin said in his speech on Saturday.
According to Japanese and Russian diplomatic sources, it is highly unusual for Putin to mention Nazism and Japanese militarism in the same breath. The reference was a clear sign to China, indicating that Russia supports Beijing's view of WWII history. It was also an apparent snub to Japan for joining U.S.-led economic sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
While praising China for its role in WWII, saying it fought on the front line against militarism in Asia, the Russian president also criticized the U.S. for trying to create a world weighted toward a single power.
Nikkei staff writer Takayuki Tanaka in Moscow contributed to this article.