In a surprise admission of unreliability, Moscow cut Russia’s Air Force from several 2022 Victory Day Parades, high-profile military spectacles commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. In Moscow, the fly-by, expected to include over 70 aircraft, was ostensibly cancelled due to weather, though the ground portion of the parade took place with good visibility and under only somewhat cloudy skies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who observers suspect was wearing a flak jacket, presided over the parade in person, giving a subdued speech, saying the defense of Russia “was a sacred thing.” As expected, Putin associated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the sacrifices of World War II, justifying the Russian military fiasco as “proactive resistance to aggression,” and a “forced, timely, and sole correct decision.”
Unlike previous public appearances regarding Ukraine, Putin tamped down his traditionally belligerent public persona. Rather than growl threats and dabble in strange conspiracy theories, Putin’s Victory Day speech was relatively restrained, containing no indications of a wider war.
Putin did not declare victory, nor did he declare war on Ukraine or NATO. He did not order a general mobilization. Putin’s message was simple, acknowledging losses and that the “special military operation” is ongoing.
The war continues, though the attenuated Victory Day Parade suggests that, with resources low, the wheels may be coming off the Russian military, a long-cherished pillar of the state.
Why No Aircraft?
The abrupt purge of the Russian Air Force may reflect the service’s unreliability, its poor performance and continued inability to take control of Ukraine airspace. A toxic combination of battlefield attrition, lack of pilot training, and poor maintenance practices—as well as increasing frustration from military leaders—likely forced Russia’s Air Force from the high-profile Red Square festivities.
The Moscow fly-over, had it occurred, would have been an embarrassment. It is no secret that Russia’s Air Force is crumbling under the weight of sustained combat operations.
Russia’s helicopter fleet is taking a steady beating, and given battlefield attrition, Moscow parade planners expected to use no more than 15 helicopters, a humiliating reduction from a big contingent of 23 choppers just a year ago.
The story is no better for Russia’s fixed-wing aircraft. Sukhoi Su-30 Flankers and Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers, facing heavy losses and high demand, were not going to be represented in the Red Square parade, either.
Instead, the Moscow parade was set to celebrate Russia’s creaky fleet of Mikoyan Mig-29 fighter jets. After showing 4 Mig-29s in previous victory parades, Russia was set to use 16 Mig-29s, sending the older fighters out to conduct a “Z” pattern fly-by.
Outside of the “Z” formation flight, the show’s central—and most provocative—attraction was originally to be filled by the Ilyushin IL-80 “Maxdome” command and control aircraft, a “doomsday” plane that ensures Russian leaders remain in contact with their nuclear arsenal during a war. But with only three copies still flying, the 35-year-old derivation of the IL-86 passenger aircraft had little backup in the event the designated parade aircraft broke down.
Had the parade gone forward without the “doomsday” headliner, the aircraft’s absence would have been widely noted and widely discussed. Some might seize on the idea that Russia was ramping down their dangerous rhetoric about nuclear war—something that Putting may not want. Alternatively, the aircraft’s abrupt disappearance might suggest that Russia’s vaunted strategic forces are in disarray. Putin’s hold on power may turn on the respect others offer to Russia’s strategic warfighters, and a demonstration of unreliability may have been too much to bear. Shutting the entire parade down over “weather” concerns may have been far easier an option.
Russian pilots may be facing strain as well, and the weather may, simply, have been too much for them. Though conditions were windy, the weather appeared to be perfectly fine for a fly-by. Russian aircraft have conducted ceremonial flights in far worse conditions. But, under less-than-perfect conditions, if the war is sucking away Russia’s best pilots, the second stringers on parade fly-over duty may not have been quite ready to strut their ragged gear and skills before a global audience.
Fuel may have been a problem too. Mig-29s are notorious gas-guzzlers. And with the fuel-hungry fighter set to represent more than a quarter of the Moscow’s parade aircraft, any supply shortage would have been difficult to mask. With reports that fly-overs were cancelled at a number of other Russian Victory parades, critical supply shortages or some other systemic failure cannot be discounted.
The Real Storm Clouds: Moscow’s Security Fears
Putin is certainly aware that military “victory” parades are dangerous places for unstable and contested regimes. In 1981, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, celebrating Egypt’s successful attack on the Suez Canal, was shot and killed in the midst of the military pageantry. In 2018, Iranian militants, dressed in military uniforms, opened fire during a military parade commemorating the 1980s war with Iraq, shooting into the VIP reviewing stand.
While threats on the ground can be managed by trusted security forces, aircraft are kinetic instruments, piloted by individuals. The cockpit is one of the few places where Russian security agents are absent. An individual pilot with a grudge, at the controls of a high-performance jet, could easily take matters into his own hands, plowing the aircraft into the big, easily identified reviewing stand before anybody could react. And Putin, surrounded by aging veterans, would be an unmissable target.
With rumors of intergovernmental tension and increasing insubordination in the mid-level officer corps, the abrupt cut of Russia’s Air Force fly-over—despite several successful practice-runs under far worse weather—is notable. At a minimum, the sudden ceremonial purge of Russia’s Air Force suggests that the Russian Air Force is unreliable operationally, and, potentially, politically.