Tanks Roll Over Russia's Image

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If anyone was having trouble grasping the fact that Russia has an image problem, the sight of intercontinental ballistic missiles rolling across Red Square on Victory Day should have cleared matters up.

The country's leadership -- particularly Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- regularly bristles when its policies toward the West and Russia's neighbors are characterized as remnants of the Soviet past. Criticism is dismissed quickly as Cold War-era thinking.

The time has come, the Kremlin insists, for the West to ditch the paradigm that underpinned the tense relations with Moscow for the second half of the last century. It is time, we are told, for Russia to be seen as a rightful member of the European community, posing no threat to the others.

To help outsiders accept this vision, the Kremlin has spent millions of dollars to try to get the message out. The program has included the creation of the English-language news and public-affairs channel Russia Today, the publishing of paid supplements in major Western newspapers like The Washington Post, and the hiring of heavyweight U.S. public relations firm Ketchum.

The problem is that images of tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces parading under the approving eyes of the leadership are things people expect to arrive on their television screens from North Korea, not from 21st-century Europe.

Russia is not alone, of course, in rolling out the military hardware for holiday parades, and the other aficionados of martial displays aren't limited to communist regime holdovers China and North Korea. Israel, India and Pakistan are just three of the other members of the weapons-parade club.

When these countries flex their military muscles on state holidays, it is not without purpose. There is an element of intimidation involved, aimed at neighbors (in the case of Pakistan and India, each other) with whom they have engaged in war in recent decades and with whom further armed conflict remains a distinct possibility.

Russians themselves appear to understand this thinking.

In a survey carried out by polling agency VTsIOM at the end of March, 70 percent of respondents said they supported the return of military hardware to the Victory Day parade. More telling, the largest portion of those in favor, 23 percent, said they supported the return of tanks and missiles because it would provide a demonstration of the country's military might.

Perhaps the whole display was meant for internal consumption, to capitalize on people's desire to see their country as once more great and powerful -- even menacing.

But this flies right in the face of the image the country is trying present to outside observers.

As the tone of the foreign media's coverage of the tanks and missiles demonstrated, Russia can't have it both ways.