Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech could offer clues on the future of Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine

With the war in Ukraine dragging into its 11th week, the West is warily eyeing a symbolic holiday in Russia.

May 9 is known as Victory Day, when Russian troops triumphed over Nazi Germany in World War II.

For years, Moscow has used the anniversary to showcase its military might with grand parades of tanks, missile trucks and soldiers dressed in full regalia marching through the streets of the capital.

Tens of thousands of Russian citizens also take part in what is considered “the holiday with tears in your eyes”, carrying portraits of relatives who died in what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War. 

Russians carry portraits of people in Victory Day parade
Russian citizens carry portraits of people, including Red Army soldiers, during the Immortal Regiment march on Victory Day.(Reuters: Tatyana Makeyeva)

The pageantry enables Vladimir Putin to harness the nation’s patriotic feelings, according to Russia watchers, and culminates in an annual televised speech from the President.

This year, it will not just be Russians watching the address closely. Many observers and officials around the world will be too.

More than two months after Russia’s troops marched across the border, rumours are swirling that the President’s address may signal a shift in his ambitions for Ukraine.

Despite the military campaign suffering from logistical issues, low morale and outdated assumptions, the Russian leader appears unlikely to concede defeat.

Instead, with the eyes of the international community on him, Mr Putin may decide to slap a “mission accomplished” banner on his disastrous invasion.

Putin may be pushing for a victory

Victory Day is one of Russia’s biggest occasions and is a “genuinely epoch-making event”, according to Frank Ledwidge, senior lecturer in strategy and law at the University of Portsmouth.

A soldier dressed in military uniform and wearing a cap holds a flag while marching with other men.
Russia’s military campaign has suffered several setbacks and been plagued by logistical issues.(Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)

“The national myth of Russia and the former Soviet Union is, quite correctly, that they defeated an overwhelming enemy,” he told the ABC.

In recent years, however, Victory Day has been pumped up by nationalist rhetoric as not only a day of commemoration, but “a day of patriotism for Russia”, he added. 

World War II is central to the push from Russia’s military and bureaucratic class for a single official version of the past, according to journalist Andrei Kolesnikov.

“The current regime, which calls itself the sole heir of this victory, uses this achievement to make itself immune to criticism on other issues while justifying its current militarisation efforts and excessive state interference in all aspects of life,” he wrote in 2017.

In the lead-up to May 9, the UK Ministry of Defence has warned Russia may desire to “demonstrate significant successes” ahead of the annual celebrations.

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In its “items to watch” list last week, the Institute for the Study of War said Russia might change the status of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

It could possibly merge them into a single “Donbas republic” and/or annex them directly to Russia, it stated.

Analysts, however, are divided on whether the President will make a declaration of that scale.

If Russia sets up separatist republics, Mr Putin is putting a “marker on the table that he’s not stepping back,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said.

“If he creates these separatist regions, that … makes it extremely difficult for a negotiation, and that means that the war is going to go on for quite some time,” he said.

Another possibility is that Russia claims limited success. In the past few days, Kremlin officials and propagandists have reportedly flocked to Mariupol in preparation for a Victory Day parade in the city, according to Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency.

It says the city is “urgently cleaning the central streets of debris, the bodies of those killed and unexploded ordnance”.

Lord Richard Dannatt has also suggested Mr Putin may be seeking a victory in Mariupol by May 9.

A large building surrounded by power lines is damaged with smoke lingering in the air.
Russia has accelerated its attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine in the past few weeks, including on the Azovstal iron and steel works.

The former head of the British army told Sky News the direct attack on the Azovstal steel plant this week was an attempt to “try and snuff out the remaining part of the resistance there so that they can claim on [Victory Day] that they have captured Mariupol”.

Other British and Ukrainian officials, however, fear Mr Putin’s next step could go much further.

The risk of escalation to full-scale war

Russia could potentially take a more aggressive next step and formally declare war on Ukraine.

British Defence Minister Ben Wallace and the adviser to the Ukrainian President, Mikhail Podolyak, have both warned Mr Putin might move towards a wartime footing.

Throughout its invasion, Russia has denied allegations its forces have committed war crimes, and it has blamed the deaths of civilians on what it calls nationalists and “neo-Nazis”, suggestions dismissed by Kyiv and the West.

But Mr Putin may want to make use of the symbolism of an anniversary marking the defeat of Nazi Germany to advocate “for more Nazism to be defeated”, according to Dr Ledwidge.

“Right now, [Russia is] fighting with a peacetime army at 70 per cent manning levels, not counting casualties, corruption, endemic rot, etc, which is considerable,” he said.

“… So the generals will have told Putin, if they dare, that they’re fighting with one arm behind their back [and they] need to get on a wartime footing.”

Full mobilisation would “allow the floodgates of soldiers to open”, Dr Ledwidge said, bringing both reservists and new conscripts into the war effort.

A group of soldiers stand in formation wearing miltiary uniforms and blue hats.
Russia’s military has reportedly suffered from morale problems since the war in Ukraine began.(Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)

Yet military observers warn that it would take months, or even years, to recruit and train the conscripts.

Mr Putin would also “have to go back on the entire narrative” of a special military campaign, according to Mr Cancian. 

“I find it unlikely — not impossible — but unlikely,” he said.

“… A special military operation implies it’s like a police action, it’s limited, it’s not a war.”

All-out-war would have far-reaching consequences: draining government coffers, creating millions of casualties, and prolonging the military campaign in Ukraine for an unknown period of time.

It would be a worst-case scenario, experts say.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has played down the likelihood of such an announcement, stating there is “no chance” Mr Putin will declare war.

American and European officials have also told the New York Times they have not seen any on-the-ground movements suggesting a larger push will begin on May 9.

But with Russia’s troops making little progress in Ukraine, Mr Putin may try to save face somehow.

A burgeoning stalemate

The Russian armed forces have enjoyed a resurgence of prestige and support since Mr Putin returned to power in 2012, according to Jennifer Mathers, an expert in Russian politics, history and security at Aberystwyth University.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military struggled to find its place in the new political, economic, and social order.

As stories emerged of the military’s primitive living conditions, shortages of food, brutal commanding officers and systematic bullying and torture of conscripts, ordinary Soviet citizens were surprised and horrified.

“Since 2008, the military has been going through more serious reforms, or so we thought. I think what we’re discovering from the way that the military is performing in Ukraine is that the reforms never really addressed these basic things,” Dr Mathers said.

Instead of securing a lightning-fast victory, Russian forces are now bogged down in a stalemate with a smaller but determined army.

A soldier in military uniform and holding a gun stands in front of a destroyed apartment building with emergency crews.
Ukraine’s military has performed well against Russian forces, experts say.(AP: Efrem Lukatsky)

The country has also experienced humiliating losses. Western leaders believe that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed — greater than the number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Among them are a slew of generals — estimated to be about 12 in total — which has astonished experts and exposed structural problems in Russia’s military ranks.

“The high casualties, the low morale and the fact that they’re not making much progress, I’m surprised that they’re still going at it,” Mr Cancian said. 

In its assessment on May 6, the Institute for the Study of War stated Russian forces had not secured any significant territorial gains in the past 24 hours.

It also said Russia was continuing ineffectual offensive operations in southern Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts.

The Russian armed forces are “mired in the Donbas and are not going anywhere,” Dr Ledwidge said. 

“They’ll have a few local successes, but essentially they’re having their asses handed to them by the Ukrainians, and will continue to do so.”

Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, has offered a stark assessment of where Russia’s campaign stands: “[Russians] do not have the capacity for another major offensive in Ukraine.”

With crippling sanctions, accusations of war crimes and a more united West than ever before, Mr Putin’s invasion now looks like a strategic blunder.

“To be honest, there isn’t really a nice easy solution for [Mr Putin],” Dr Mathers said.

“… He might just decide not to say anything at all and carry on with the line that [this is] a special military operation and everything’s going according to plan.”

Yet by slowly surrounding himself with sycophants in the lead-up to his invasion, Russia’s leader may be unaware of the scale of the problem facing his country’s forces in Ukraine.

And with few in his close circle ready to challenge him, Vladimir Putin might see a dual purpose in doubling down. 

It will enable him to militarise the nation and silence his critics. The question is: For how long?

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