In a war like this, what does victory look like?
That’s a question Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to answer, at least implicitly, when his country celebrates one of its biggest and most explosive patriotic holidays, Victory Day, on Monday – a highly choreographed celebration of Moscow’s military power that awkwardly coincides this year with a smaller neighbor’s unlikely defiance in the face of a devastating 10-week assault.
“There is no victory to announce,” said Mark Galeotti, Russia specialist at University College London. “Then he will have to proclaim one all the louder.”
There is no way to say that the war against Ukraine – “the special military operation”, as the Kremlin dubbed its February 24 invasion – went as planned. Putin’s armies have killed thousands, razed once vibrant cities, sent more than 5.7 million people into exile and inflicted billions of dollars in damage on Ukraine, a country of 44 million became a sovereign nation more than three decades ago when the Soviet Union imploded.
But in those weeks of war, Putin’s once-vaunted army failed to capture Ukraine’s capital, kyiv, or topple its government. Russia also suffered the ignominious sinking of a flagship missile cruiser and suffered military casualties likely exceeding those of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated the NATO alliance, hurt the Russian economy and plunged the country’s 144 million citizens into a degree of isolation not seen since the coldest days of the war. cold.
Russia, which met little significant resistance when it seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, had evidently hoped for a quick victory and the rapid installation of a puppet government when its troops and tanks crossed the borders.
Instead, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has attained a stature approaching that of wartime Churchill, and Western dignitaries arrive almost daily in kyiv, showering cash, weapons and expressions of support for the government of Zelensky.
Yet this is seen by many as a particularly perilous moment in the war, as Ukraine and its allies wonder whether Putin, furious at a triumph that has eluded him, will unleash in a way that has yet to be seen in this conflict. .
Monday’s holiday marks the 77th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, a day of deep emotional resonance for Russians who still remember a staggering 27 million compatriots killed in World War II.
In Moscow’s Red Square, Putin, 69, must preside over a cavalcade of troops and tanks, rockets and long-range ballistic missiles. The military overflights would include a sharp display – the first in more than a decade – of Russia’s ‘doomsday’ airborne command center, an aircraft intended to transport top military leaders and officials in the event of a nuclear exchange.
On a day whose overt theme is glorious victory, however, the war in Ukraine offers “very, very slim choices”, said James Nixey, who heads the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a British think tank.
Putin, he said, “will need to tell a story, they will need to say, proclaim something, show that they have achieved something, and there is a limited menu from which to do that.”
Over the past few weeks, analysts and officials in Ukraine and the West have elaborated various VE Day scenarios: Moscow seeking to strike a decisive blow on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, staging punitive strikes on towns moved away from the front lines or officially annexing more territory under the most fragile orders. of Russian control.
Other possibilities: a formal declaration of war by Russia, accompanied by a massive mobilization of troops, or a nuclear commotion even more worrying than that of recent weeks. Or a Russian push into Moldova, a small impoverished non-NATO state bordering Ukraine.
In the eyes of many Ukrainians, Putin’s main claim to battlefield success in Ukraine is Pyrrhic: the long-awaited final capture of Mariupol, the now devastated southern port where some of Russia’s worst atrocities are believed to have taken place.
Much of the city is in ruins; city officials claim that bombardment, hunger and deprivation have killed more than 20,000 residents. Satellite imagery has identified mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been buried when Russia in March bombed a historic theater in the basement of which desperate families had taken refuge, and a maternity hospital in Mariupol suffered a blow that sent terrified pregnant women fleeing – from less, those who survived.
Defenders of a sprawling steelworks complex mounted a desperate last stand, with widespread expectations that Russia would move to wipe out remaining fighters and civilians, to proclaim the city’s “liberation” in time for Monday.
Some observers, however, say that in Putin’s Russia a narrative of conquest could be fashioned from very little, with horrific conditions in the battle zone presented as proof that Russian troops are bravely fighting to protect the homeland. and Russian speakers from Ukraine.
Analysts say the Tsarist-era concept of a Potemkin village – a man-made construction intended to provide a false but convincing exterior facade – could live on in a chronicle of alleged gains in Ukraine, especially after months of propaganda incessant official comment on the justice of the Russian cause.
“I don’t think they need a real victory on May 9, just pictures of combat actions to show the Russian people,” said Oleksandr Musiienko, director of the Center for Military and Legal Studies, at the Ukrainian site NV. Russian forces could, for example, use video of a temporary breach of Ukrainian defenses in a local area to claim a bigger conquest, he said.
The eastern frontlines are fluid, with some settlements changing hands several times and Russia making little significant progress since the supposed start of its eastern offensive two weeks ago, Western analysts said.
The shattered ruins of Mariupol could provide a gruesome backdrop for some form of victory parade on Monday, Ukrainian officials say. They reported that Russian forces were bribing starving residents to get to work cleaning up debris after weeks of relentless shelling.
“Work in exchange for food is the best illustration of this ‘victory’,” said Petro Andryushchenko, councilor to the city’s mayor. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week he did not know if there would be a victory parade in the city.
Ukrainian officials said a mobilization of troops announced by Russia would help it rebuild and replenish units shattered by an unsuccessful attempt in March to seize the capital. Earlier this week, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, said such an effort was already underway and that the holidays would be a pretext to launch such a campaign.
In a number of localities, including areas that have seen few attacks, city officials have urged people to stay indoors and avoid large gatherings as Monday approaches.
The moment of the warning carried particular emotion in a country where many graves have been dug in recent weeks. According to Orthodox Christian tradition, the weeks after Easter, which this year fell on April 24, are an opportunity to visit the cemetery, often in the company of relatives.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko wrote on the Telegram messaging app that people should avoid visiting cemeteries in groups.
On Monday, Russia is expected to take the opportunity to highlight the Kremlin’s assertion that the Ukrainian government is an unfortunate pawn of the West and that the real battle is between Russia and the entire Treaty Organization. of the North Atlantic. Such a claim could serve as a pretext to continue a “protracted” war, as even Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, acknowledged this week in an interview with The Associated Press.
In his expected speech, Putin will likely delve into another familiar — and unsubstantiated — theme: comparing the war in Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany, the apparent reason for Monday’s celebrations. . The Kremlin falsely insists that Ukraine is ruled and invaded by the Nazis.