Selfie, Putin-Style: Tanks, Planes, and Nukes Mark Victory Day

Sixty-nine years have passed since the end of World War II, and on Friday Russia put on an incredible show to mark the occasion. In a deep-throated paean to military might, the country's armed forces paraded their hardware through the streets of Moscow. The spectacle of Victory Day provided a moment for President Vladimir Putin to deliver a perfect visual metaphor for a resurgent Russia.

From tanks to fighter planes to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers to goose-stepping troops, the Russian army proved itself fully fluent in the visual language of power. With Russian troops massing on Ukraine's border and the Crimean peninsula fully in Moscow's hands, this year's Victory Day went far beyond the usual commemorations of Russian sacrifices during what is known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia and as World War II virtually everywhere else.

For an American audience, the importance of the holiday might be difficult to understand, but the scale of Soviet losses during the war -- an estimated 27 million deaths -- means that huge swaths of Russia lost a friend or relative during the war. While the United States is no stranger to tributes to military might, the Russian holiday is on a far larger scale than its American equivalent, Memorial Day. In a moving remembrance of her own family's experience during the war, the New Republic's Julia Ioffe gives a sense of how deeply the war is still felt in Russian society, nearly seven decades after the guns fell silent.

Today, the political significance of Friday's events in Moscow can't be disconnected from the continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine. The day -- and its political significance -- might be summed up in the following two videos. The first is an AP summary of the Moscow parade. Be sure to consider the scale of military might on display here:

The second video comes to us from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where a gunfight broke out between elements of the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists. The following news report shows footage from the running gun battles on the city's streets. The footage is the latest testament to unrest in the country's east, which U.S. officials say has been largely orchestrated by Russia as a pretext for a possible invasion:

Taken together, these two videos show the two sides of military power that Putin has put into play during the Ukrainian crisis -- the conventional forces perched on Ukraine's border and the special forces and intelligence operatives allegedly fomenting unrest inside Ukraine's borders.

Meanwhile in Slavyansk, a city in eastern Ukraine still under the control of pro-Russian militants, a group of separatists decided to roll out a set of armored personnel carriers seized from the Ukrainian army. Needless to say, they looked pretty pleased with themselves:

In what might be described as the day's crowning video, the Kremlin-funded RT network put out a magnificent piece of propaganda showing Putin arriving in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. While there, he reviewed elements of the Russian navy and delivered remarks defending his decision to annex the peninsula from Ukraine. "I think 2014 will also be an important year in the annals of Sevastopol and our whole country, as the year when people living here firmly decided to be together with Russia and thus confirmed their faith in the historic memory of our forefathers," Putin said.

While in Crimea, Putin took in a performance by a group of Russian fighter aces. The strongman looks wonderfully bored:

Throughout the day, the Russian government delivered a similarly blunt message of military might. The image below was posted on Twitter by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It shows a mobile ICBM launcher. Few more terrifying military devices exist in the world:

For ordinary Russians, Friday was also a day to indulge in a bit of Soviet nostalgia, embodied here by a wonderful little dance performed in Soviet-era military garb:

And we defy you to find a more fabulous band leader:

Meanwhile, here's video from the reviewing stand in Moscow, which gives a sense of the power projected by troops marching in formation and at speed:

And if there was ever any doubt, the selfie phenomenon has decisively arrived in Moscow. This correspondent can report that the day's most frequent trend on Russian social media networks involved selfies of Russian women in Red Army caps. This post very easily could have involved nothing more than a collection of myriad selfies featuring beautiful Russian women in Red Army gear. Instead, we end with this postcard from Moscow:



House Republicans Might Have Found a Real Scandal -- And It's Not Benghazi

Think of it as the tale of two scandals.

In the last week, Congress slapped a pair of Obama administration cabinet officials with subpoenas. The first was handed to Secretary of State John Kerry, ordering him to appear before the House Oversight Committee and testify about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The second came Thursday when the House Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously voted to subpoena Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, in effort to obtain documents related to allegations that delays in care at an Arizona facility resulted in the deaths of some 40 former service members.

It's extremely unusual to subpoena one cabinet secretary, let alone two. But what may be most unusual is that the same Democrats who dismissed the Kerry subpoena as the latest move in a politically-motivated and partisan witch hunt are bucking their own party and strongly supporting the Shinseki subpoena.

Supporting military veterans is always a winner politically. In this case, though, lawmakers are also responding to several reports in recent weeks that appear to bolster the claims of the department's critics that the episode in Arizona may be part of a wider pattern of mismanagement and negligence in providing healthcare to American veterans. According to a December report authored by the VA's own investigators, employees at a veterans clinic in Colorado were instructed to falsify medical records in order to lower the facility's reported wait time to receive an appointment. Another VA report linked the deaths of 23 former service members to delays in endoscopy screenings.

Unlike Benghazi, this time around Republicans find themselves with willing allies across the aisle. "Unfortunately, I do not believe the VA has provided sufficient answers to our legitimate questions which is why I supported the serious next step of issuing a subpoena," Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat and a member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "Furthermore, I am deeply concerned that these practices may be more pervasive within the VA medical system."

Having joined the administration in January 2009, Shinseki has long-standing ties to the Obama administration, and it will be difficult for the retired four-star Army general to shrug off allegations of mismanagement as inherited problems. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Shinseki described himself as an embattled reformer within a department with entrenched problems. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," he said in response to whether he might resign over the allegations. "I signed on to make some changes, I have work to do."

The subpoena issued Thursday focuses on a decision by a VA facility in Phoenix to destroy what department officials have described as an interim wait list that was used while the facility was transitioning to a new wait system. VA officials have told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that they believe this list may be the "secret" wait list that CNN reported was used to create the appearance of shorter wait times. That interim list was apparently destroyed, and the committee would like to find out why.

A committee staffer, speaking to Foreign Policy on background to preserve his relationship with the department, said he wasn't sure which account to believe and said that the subpoena was issued in part to get to the bottom of the matter. In a letter sent Wednesday, Shinseki attempted to address the committee's concerns about the list, arguing that it was well within department policy to destroy such material. But the committee didn't find that response sufficient and proceeded to issue the subpoena.

In response to that surprisingly confrontational move, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it will conduct "a national face-to-face audit" at all its clinics. "Our most important mission is to make sure veterans know VA is here to care for them and provide the high quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve," the department said in a statement.

When asked by Foreign Policy to respond to concerns that the Arizona allegations are emblematic of the care offered by the VA system, the department said in a statement that it thoroughly investigates claims of misconduct and that it has made important progress in improving care. "If the VA Office of Inspector General's ongoing investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken," the department said, referring to an ongoing investigation of the Arizona facility. "Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care."

But on Capitol Hill, frustration is mounting with both Shinseki and his department. While the department has come under heavy fire since CNN aired the allegations about delays in care at the Phoenix facility and the alleged use of a secret waiting list used to create the appearance of reduced wait times, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee have long been badgering the department for information about other allegations of misconduct only to be, in their opinion, stonewalled. The committee has gone so far as to set up a website devoted to tracking outstanding requests for information.

Discontent with the department is also mounting among veterans groups. This week, the American Legion, one influential such group, called on Shinseki and two other VA officials to resign, the first time the group has called on a public official to step down since 1978. When the Legion's commander, Daniel Dellinger, asked Shinseki why he hadn't fired anyone despite a long history of problems within the department, Shinseki once more emphasized his role as a reformer. "He said he didn't need to fire anyone; he needed to retrain them," Dellinger said, recalling his conversation with Shinseki to the New York Times. "That was a red flag."

When asked whether the Legion agrees that allegations about the Arizona facility are part of a broader pattern of VA failings, a spokesman for the group forwarded a list of 28 alleged instances of problems and a lack of accountability at VA medical facilities nationwide. Beyond lapses in care, the examples provided by the Legion reveal a pattern of department officials receiving bonuses despite overseeing increases in backlogs of medical claims. One example cited by Marty Callaghan, the spokesman: "Diana Rubens, the VA executive in charge of the nearly 60 offices that process disability benefits compensation claims, collected almost $60,000 in bonuses while presiding over a near seven-fold increase in backlogged claims."

Shinseki will reportedly testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 15. Expect fireworks.      

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