The eyes of the world are on Putin: what rhetoric does he use to celebrate the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany? Three scenarios.
Manifestations will take place in many Russian cities on Monday to celebrate the 1945 victory over the German Nazis. And to honor the estimated 27 million dead the Soviet Union suffered in the “Great Patriotic War,” as Russia calls World War II.
The authorities are doing their best to fully embed this day in the official Russian nationalist narrative, which goes without saying that the Nazis inflicted relatively more victims in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine than in Russia.
In Moscow, troops will march past President Vladimir Putin as usual, only this time including troops who fought in Ukraine. Fighter planes will fly over in the formation of the letter ‘z’, the mark of Russian combat vehicles in Ukraine.
No one should miss the direct link between the Russian victory over Nazi Germany and the current struggle against the ‘Nazi regime’ in Kyiv.
What will Putin say about that battle in his speech? Will he declare victory, announce escalation, or will he continue to muddle through? Three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Putin declares victory
What distinguishes Russia’s Great Patriotic War from the one in Ukraine is, first of all, that Russia is not waging a war in Ukraine, but a “special military operation.” Another difference: unlike the German Nazis at the time, the Ukrainian ‘Nazis’ did not capitulate.
Far from. Putin can boast of few successes. The lightning offensive to replace President Zelensky and his government with a puppet government has failed, at the cost of heavy Russian losses and an ignominious retreat from northern Ukraine.
Ukraine is not demilitarized, as Moscow wanted, but better armed than ever thanks to massive Western arms support. The Russian leadership has antagonized the Western world, and it has cut itself in the hands economically. Yet Putin today has to sell the collapse as a victory, helped by the equalized news media and the effective curtailment of critical voices. What does he have to offer?
Mariupol, for example. In recent days, the Russian army has done everything it can to wind up the last seat of resistance there, although it has still not been completely successful.The Azov battalion, stationed at the Azov steel plant, is the first example of the ‘Nazi’ forces Russia had to contend with in Russian propaganda. And with Mariupol, the Russian military controls a strategic land corridor, from the Russian-controlled parts of the Donbas to 2014 annexed Crimea.
Putin can report fewer results in southern and eastern Ukraine, where he is now focusing all military efforts. The Russian army is making moderate or no progress. Yet it has more or less brought large areas under control, which can serve as spare change in negotiations. Will Putin call for a ceasefire on Monday with due rhetorical generosity?
That would only be for a show because Zelensky stated last week that he only wants to talk about a truce if Russia withdraws to its borders before the latest assault.
In March, an agreement appeared to be possible. Ukraine’s pledge to abandon NATO membership, which was guaranteed by permanent members of the UN Security Council, was then considered by Ukrainian and Russian delegates. The fate of Crimea and the Donbas’ ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk should be decided later.
It is unlikely that Zelensky would stop at the old LoC now if Russia is thrust on the defensive. The West also seems determined to press ahead, with sanctions and military support.
Putin cannot expect sanctions to be lifted until he reaches an agreement with Ukraine, “and he won’t get that with a dictated peace,” Chancellor Scholz said last week.
“Ukraine must win the war,” said EU commission chair Ursula von der Leyen, and Kyiv sets the criteria for an agreement.
On the arms aid, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russia should be pushed back from all over Ukraine — including Crimea. According to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the weapons the US supplies to Ukraine should not only help Ukraine defend its sovereignty, but should also weaken it.
Scenario 2: Putin escalates
From Putin’s point of view, the struggle in Ukraine is a ‘proxy war’, which NATO is waging against Russia. Russia is a victim of NATO aggression, he has always claimed. Western rhetoric will have propelled Putin into that conviction, and he will be milking it on Monday. Time is running out for him now that the Western arms flow to Ukraine is increasing rather than decreasing.
Putin can formally declare war on Ukraine. Then he can declare a total or partial mobilization, although this can also be done on the basis of the law, ‘in cases of aggression against the Russian Federation, a direct threat of aggression, or the outbreak of armed conflict against the Russian Federation’. He can also assume great powers, for example by declaring martial law.
The argument against this is that the Kremlin would then admit that the ‘special operation’ is not going according to plan, as it has always maintained. For Russians who leave the war untouched as long as they don’t notice it too much, things could change if they are hit by drastic measures, such as a travel ban for men of able age. That could hurt Putin’s popularity. Winning in Ukraine is important to him, but keeping his own position is likely to be even higher on his agenda.
Still, Putin will announce mobilization measures on Monday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, among others, expects, because more conscripts and reserve troops are desperately needed at the front. On paper, Russia has tens of thousands, or even a hundred thousand reservists. But according to Western estimates, only four to five thousand of them are sufficiently trained to be deployable.
The Russian armed forces now number around 260,000 conscripts. They form the majority, next to the professional elite troops. Emergency measures may force them to stay in service longer. Fresh conscripts can also be deployed earlier, without the required minimum training of four to five months.
But Putin must fear that poorly trained soldiers with low morale are cannon fodder for effective Ukrainian fighters. Large numbers of fallen conscripts can tilt public opinion. So far there has been little sign of social dissatisfaction with the according to Western estimates between ten and fifteen thousand Russians were killed and a multitude wounded. Censorship and war propaganda have helped, but are no guarantee for the future.
The most serious form of escalation would be the use of nuclear weapons. On Monday, the cruise missiles will roll over Red Square before the eyes of the world. In his speech, Putin can once again underline earlier threats. “No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” Putin said when he announced the invasion on February 24. Three days later, he ordered the nuclear weapons to be placed on high alert.
Western analysts have noticed little of this. There are differing views on the seriousness of the nuclear threat. If Putin loses the Donbas and cannot present anything as a victory, the use of nuclear weapons is “no longer inconceivable,” writes analyst Ian Bremmer in Foreign Affairs. No, analyst Gideon Rose argues in the same magazine, Putin will not forget that. Even pathological mass murderers like Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin knew that nuclear weapons are guaranteed to lead to self-destruction.
Russia likes to point out to the West the destructive power and hypersonic speed of its missiles. But it also features limited-range tactical nuclear weapons. They are ‘more suitable’ for use in Ukraine, provided they explode far enough away from friendly troops. Detonating an atomic bomb over the Black Sea, as a warning, is also a possibility. But the same applies to that to that other spectre: an attack with chemical weapons. It would face even further repercussions and international isolation for Putin and his followers.
Scenario 3: Putin continues to muddle through
Several Russian leaders have denied that Putin will use 9 May to announce a change of course in Ukraine. Perhaps he will leave it with praise for the heroic Russian soldiers who have brought an end to the genocide of Russian speakers in Ukraine, avert the Nazi danger, defend the Fatherland against NATO aggression, and so on.
Putin may also have ideas in store that he does not hang around the clock. The conquest of Odesa, for example, with which Russia would cut off Ukraine from access to the Black Sea. Or continue to Transnistria. Also possible: a referendum in Kherson, to make that region a ‘people’s republic’. Or annex the existing people’s republics of Lugansk and Donetsk into Russia.
Not everything revolves around the parade in Moscow on Monday. Victory Day is a parade among the ruins of the city It goes without saying that it was destroyed by the Ukrainian Nazis.
Image Credit: Getty
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