MOSCOW—The 9th of May, marking the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, is a sacred secular holiday in Russia. The traditional Victory Day parade is watched by millions as the nation pays tribute to the patriotism of the army and the navy that defended the homeland with enormous bravery in a conflict that cost the lives of some 26.6 million people in what was then the Soviet Union.
The anniversary of the end of the conflict that came to be called the Great Patriotic War has always been an occasion for the diverse peoples of Russia and of the old Soviet states to come together and remember their shared sacrifice.
It is also a great moment for patriotic propaganda. And this year, it seems, the occasion has been used to stir something like panic, at least in the national media. Victory Day 2017 will be remembered as the time when Russians were led to believe that U.S. President Donald Trump might rain missiles on their parade.
At sunrise on Sunday several major Russian warships that were supposd to take part in Victory Day parade of the fleet took off from the Krinstadt naval base near Saint Petersburg. Fontanka.ru reported that the warships were headed to the Baltic Sea to defend the border from the American destroyer the USS Carney, which Russian news outlets reported had approached too closely to the Russian border.
Significantly, Russian media said the Carney was armed with at least 50 Tomahawk missiles.
In an article picked up extensively by Russian media, the Dutch weekly magazine Elsevier reported last week that the Carney had arrived in Amsterdam after a mission in Syria and been parked “half hidden between rusty cruise ships, concrete walls and enormous heaps of wreckage.”
The Pentagon confirmed to The Daily Beast that the USS Carney was in fact destined for the Baltic Sea.
For more than three years now, NATO has been seeking to reassure the three Baltic states on Russia’s frontier that they would be protected from aggression by Moscow—a major question after the annexation of Crimea and incitement of pro-Russian rebellion in parts of Ukraine.
By Monday, Latvia was reporting at least three Russian warships close to its coast, raising fears about Moscow’s intentions even as Moscow was raising fears about the Americans.
The news about the U.S. destroyer loaded with missiles supposedly threatening the parade upset many in Russia. People remembered “Trump’s Tomahawks” very well after last month’s retaliatory bombing of Syria for using undeclared chemical weapons.
For months, Moscow has been fueling popular anxieties about some sort of new-Cold-War apocalypse. Last fall up to 40 million Russians participated in civil-defense exercises, learning how to survive in case of a nuclear attack.
Last month local television channels talked for days about the U.S. strike on Syria, when with 59 Tomahawks launched from two U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean hit a major air base in Syria that allegedly had been used by planes dropping sarin nerve agents.
The cancellation of the fleet parade reminded everyone of imminent danger, and people could talk about little else.
At a small café at a gas station in Nizhny Novgorod two visitors overheard discussing news reports about the cancellation of the navy parade gave a pretty good summation of popular emotion.
“The madman Trump has fired at Syria, he can fire at us, or maybe he just wants to terrify us with his Tomahawks and spoil our holiday,” one man suggested. His friend responded in a confident tone: “Trump must be some sort of a monster or he is just a Nazi.”
It does not take much to make Russian society vibrate with emotion when there is news about a potential aggression by Washington.
“President [Vladimir] Putin spreads paranoia to consolidate the society around the U.S. threat,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow based political analyst. “We have seen other authoritarian regimes behaving this way. Thanks to publications like Fontanka.ru we learn about the degree of paranoia in the defense ministry,” Oreshkin added.
“The military-navy parade will not take place in Saint Petersburg because of the American destroyer approaching Russian shores,” radio Echo of Moscow reported. By mid-Sunday there was still no comment from Russian Ministry of Defense explaining why Russian military ships had disappeared from ports so suddenly. “There was an unusual hustle at Kronstadt base on Saturday morning, three submarines and Morshanks (a missile corvette) were loading ammunition,” the independent Fontanka website reported.
The report said that instead of rehearsing for the Victory Day parade, the navy squadron, including Russia’s newest corvette Stoikiy, loaded up with missiles and rockets and sailed to Gdansk Bay in the Baltic Sea.
“I doubt that the U.S. intends to attack Russia with one destroyer,” says Alexander Golts, a Russian military expert. But “it is also clear that technically it would not be possible for our ships to bring down the Tomahawks, unless they are 25 kilometers away and the decision is made instantly.”
The rapid reaction to defend the border followed Russian reports about Washington’s promise to “take control” of all Russian ports and potential cargo for North Korea. Later, the news agency Interfax quoted the U.S. Congress saying that the reports on the intention to control Russian ports in the Far East, as a part of the sanctions on North Korea were wrong.
Russian military experts, who remembered Soviet propaganda said this felt like déjà vu.
“We have argued for so long about whether Russia and the United States are fighting a new Cold War or not,” Alexander Golts told The Daily Beast. “Yes, we are at war; but if the previous Cold War had some rules by the mid 1980s, the situation today reminds one of 1950s tensions between the USSR and the USA. This is a very dangerous situation right now.”
On Monday official reports promised Russians that the navy parade would still take place in Saint Petersburg. But that was at the same time the Latvians were sighting the Russian corvettes close to their shores.
Thus do memories of the Great Patriotic War, and fears surrounding the new Cold War, blend togethere in the Russian consciousness.
—Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam and Kim Dozier in Washington also contributed to this article.