Saturday, May 9, Russia celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe with a parade. Held in Moscow's Red Square, it memorialized the destruction of the Axis powers and the end of a war that claimed 60 million lives. It also, inadvertently, commemorated a more ignominious moment: the beginning of the divisions of the Cold War.
President Vladimir Putin pulled out the stops to make the parade itself a historic event. Sixteen thousand troops, hundreds of armored vehicles, and more than a hundred aircraft passed in review of world leaders from across the globe.
Despite the significance of the event, few of the war's major participants actually attended. The anniversary was overshadowed by recent tensions between the West and Russia. The parade was boycotted by the leaders of almost every democratic country, and was a testament to Russia's decreasing popularity and increasing pariah status.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, it appears the world is being split into opposing sides again, and we may have seen the fissures Saturday in Moscow.
In the wake of World War II the world divided into opposing blocs — the free and democratic West on one side, and the communist Soviet Union and China on the other. This set the stage for the Cold War, an ideological struggle that never turned into full-blown war, but was fought by proxy around the world and with an extended military buildup.
Among the war's major victors, only Russia and China were present at the Moscow parade. The two countries are united by common interests and goals: Both chafe at the United States' status as the lone superpower and aspire to a multipolar world where America is merely one of several competing powers.
Russia, having briefly flirted with democracy, is now firmly in the grip of President Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, Russia's human rights record has tumbled and the country resembles the repressive USSR more with each passing day. Russia remains unrepentant about aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine, and even paraded Buk missiles — the same ones that allegedly downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing nearly 300 civilians.
China, after decades of adhering to former leader Deng Xiaoping's wishes of a "peaceful rise," has begun aggressively asserting itself. China's territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have alienated its neighbors and undone years of diplomacy. China's one party rule and poor human rights record also set it apart from the West.
Russia and China are both strongly authoritarian states. Xi and Putin have heaped adulation upon Mao and Stalin, both of whom killed at least as many of their own citizens as any foreign invader.
In the second row are other states that attended the parade, chiefly Vietnam, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and Egypt. The list reads like a who's who of repressive, unpopular countries — which is exactly what it is. These are countries that side with Russia and China because they are shunned by everyone else.
Loosely, we might think of this new bloc as challenging the order imposed by the United States on the rest of the world. Yet how serious a threat is it?
The answer is not much of one. The bloc more resembles more of a protest rally — a lot of individuals with the same complaint but without the means to do much about it — than the Warsaw Pact. Although united by a common goal, there is no unifying political structure, no common ideology, no leadership, and no overarching strategy for putting America in its place. China is not the anointed leader and North Korea has not been assigned the role of invading Washington State.
The relationship between Russia and China, which would be the bedrock of an anti-U.S. coalition, should not be considered an alliance by any means. It is a stretch to call the countries friends. Neither will go to war for the other — or even sacrifice very much.
It's unlikely that the world will see a second Cold War. Russia and China are too intertwined with the global economic system to risk punishing sanctions from the West. Even North Korea, one of the most isolated countries on Earth relies on trade with the outside world to survive.
The two are also too weak to confront the West — even with forces joined — a problem that won't be solved for at least another two decades. Despite surges in defense spending by both countries, they are still weak militarily weak compared to the United States.
Still, the emerging bloc is worth keeping an eye on. A miscalculation by either could trigger a crisis that any state, particularly an authoritarian one, could find difficult to climb down from. And both nations are armed with nuclear weapons.
Years from now, historians may look back on the Victory Day Parade in Moscow and consider it the moment when the great power struggle of the early 21st century was so clear and well defined. And we should be glad, at least for now, that it won't be much of one.