Putin Stages Military Show of Strength With Key Vote Approaching

President Vladimir Putin is putting Russia’s military might on display Wednesday in a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany, ahead of a referendum that may allow him to rule until 2036.

The spread of the coronavirus epidemic forced Putinto delay his annual May 9 Victory Day celebration on Moscow’s Red Square, which this year features 14,000 troops and weaponry including tanks, air-defense systems and nuclear-missile launchers.

The commemoration of what’s known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia, in which 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union were killed, takes place a week before the July 1 referendum on constitutional changes backed by the Kremlin. They include a measure that would allow Putin to seek two more six-year terms once the current one, his fourth, ends in 2024.

Putin, 67, has said the changes already endorsed by Russia’s parliament and Constitutional Court will only take effect if a majority of people support them in the referendum. While there’s little doubt the Kremlin will secure approval for the measures, officials are eager to ensure a high turnout for the vote.

Putin had attached particular importance to this year’s anniversary, inviting leaders of Western wartime allies to join him in Moscow even as they continue to sanction Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron accepted Putin’s invitation to attend on May 9 before the pandemic upended Russia’s plans.

While Putin has said Russiapassed the peak of the epidemic, the country is still reporting more than 7,000 new daily infections, including about 1,000 in Moscow. About 30 Russian cities have either suspended plans to stage local WWII parades or banned spectators, citing risks to public health.

Only about 10 foreign leaders are expected to join Putin for the parade, mostly from ex-Soviet states as well as the heads of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is attending. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic canceled plans to come at the last minute, saying the presidential plane had broken down.

The leaders of China, France, Israel, Japan and the Czech Republic were among those who declined to come. Russia didn’t invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy amid the continued dispute over Crimea and the war involving Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has advised the capital’s residents to stay home to watch the parade, he hasn’t banned spectators from the streets. Large-scale rehearsals by Russia’s military have been taking place.

On the stands in Red Square, invited guests are being seated apart from each other to reduce any infection risks, health officials have said. Nearly 80 veterans who were selected to sit with Putin at the parade wereisolated in a resort outside Moscow for 14 days to protect the Russian leader from possible exposure to the deadly pathogen.

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