Home News Putin’s War in Ukraine Likely to Hit New Phase on ‘Victory Day’

Putin’s War in Ukraine Likely to Hit New Phase on ‘Victory Day’

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On May 9, Russia will mark the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II as it does every year: with military parades across the country, the grandest of which is set to take place in Moscow’s Red Square. Only this year, Ukrainian and Western officials expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize the opportunity of a day steeped in patriotic fervor to escalate the war in Ukraine.

Western officials have been warning for several weeks that Moscow is under self-imposed pressure to chalk up some kind of victory to announce on Victory Day, as Russia’s 10-week campaign in Ukraine has floundered and fallen far short of the Kremlin’s initial goals to swiftly capture Kyiv. Putin has hinged much of his power and framed Russia’s identity around the Soviet Union’s experiences in World War II, known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War.” He has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as a new chapter in the fight against fascism, based on flagrant falsehoods that Ukraine is overrun with Nazis controlled by the West and needs liberation. (From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union was in cahoots with Nazi Germany and supplied it with oil, grain, and arms up until the very day Germany invaded.)

That “liberation” has come at a dire humanitarian cost, as the Russian military’s offensives under the guise of “denazification” have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions from their homes.

On May 9, Russia will mark the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II as it does every year: with military parades across the country, the grandest of which is set to take place in Moscow’s Red Square. Only this year, Ukrainian and Western officials expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize the opportunity of a day steeped in patriotic fervor to escalate the war in Ukraine.

Western officials have been warning for several weeks that Moscow is under self-imposed pressure to chalk up some kind of victory to announce on Victory Day, as Russia’s 10-week campaign in Ukraine has floundered and fallen far short of the Kremlin’s initial goals to swiftly capture Kyiv. Putin has hinged much of his power and framed Russia’s identity around the Soviet Union’s experiences in World War II, known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War.” He has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as a new chapter in the fight against fascism, based on flagrant falsehoods that Ukraine is overrun with Nazis controlled by the West and needs liberation. (From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union was in cahoots with Nazi Germany and supplied it with oil, grain, and arms up until the very day Germany invaded.)

That “liberation” has come at a dire humanitarian cost, as the Russian military’s offensives under the guise of “denazification” have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions from their homes.

Moscow’s constant invocation of World War II and claims that it is fighting Nazism once again have also backfired on the world stage, as Russian forces commit mass atrocities against Ukrainian civilians and have shelled areas near Holocaust memorial sites. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enraged Israel and other Western countries by falsely asserting that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and claiming that the “most ardent antisemites are usually Jews” in comments attempting to justify how Russia could be “denazifying” a country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish. (Putin later reportedly issued a rare apology to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the remarks.)

Despite the steep cost in lives on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides, the Kremlin has doubled down on invoking historical parallels to World War II to justify its invasion of Ukraine. It is invoking a slogan that has gained traction since Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014: “We can do it again.”

“It’s a great opportunity for Putin to play on nationalist sentiments, and the Kremlin is very good at the theatrics of events like this,” said Timothy Frye, a scholar on post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. “In the short run, there will be a continuation of this rally-around-the-flag effect likely after May 9.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the May 9 commemoration for Russia. The Soviet Union is estimated to have lost some 24 million people during World War II. Reverence for those who perished and served in the Soviet Red Army runs deep in Russian culture and is central to Russia’s national identity. War memorials are the centerpiece of many Russian cities, often serving as the backdrop for wedding photos of newly married Russian couples.

“The celebration under Putin has become increasingly politicized,” said Jade McGlynn, a scholar in Russian studies at the ​​Middlebury Institute of International Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The Kremlin’s Memory Makers.

“Paradoxically, it’s something deeply personal and emotional and powerful, but also in recognition of that power, it’s something that the state tries to use for its own benefit.”

Some Western officials say they anticipate Putin will use the Victory Day parade to up the ante on the invasion by calling for a mass mobilization of its army to pour more troops into Ukraine. About one-quarter of the Russian formations sent into the first phase of the war have been battered so hard that they are now out of action, Western officials have said. Ukrainian defense officials estimate that Russia has lost close to 25,000 troops in two months of fighting, an unprecedented level of attrition in modern warfare.

“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”

In another symbolic move, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to sign the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act into law on May 9, reviving a World War II-era authority to loan defense articles to the besieged country.

One data point they cite: Russia appears to be stepping up its military mobilization in recent weeks, as retired Russian troops have reportedly been summoned for conscription as potential contract employees to administer occupied areas of Ukraine. Other European officials expect the Russian military to step up its offensive in eastern Ukraine in the days leading up the commemoration so Putin can declare some form of victory and claim he has “liberated” the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

One Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government assessments of war told Foreign Policy on Thursday that Russia has a possible menu of options for its World War II anniversary, including a declaration of victories in Ukrainian territories that haven’t yet been conquered by the Russian military, holding parades on captured areas of Ukraine, or announcing moving the war to a new phase, such as a greater mobilization.

The diplomat also said Russia is likely to announce on or around May 9 phony elections in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson, which the Kremlin is seeking to annex from Ukraine by means of a trumped-up referendum. Such a move would mirror similar declarations of sovereignty in Ukrainian breakaway territories that preceded Putin’s full-scale invasion in February.

Ukrainian officials fear that Moscow may look to hold a victory parade amid the rubble of Mariupol, a strategic Ukrainian port city that has been under siege by Russian troops for nearly two months. (Russia has denied reports that it plans to hold a victory parade in Mariupol.) An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers are holding out in Mariupol, taking shelter in a sprawling steel factory while Russia consolidates control over other parts of the city. Russia began an all-out assault on the Azovstal steel plant on Thursday.

Britain’s defense ministry assessed on Friday that Russia’s storming of the plant was connected to Putin’s desire to have a symbolic victory in Ukraine in time for the May 9 parade but added that Russia would likely take losses in the attack on the mazelike facility and the resources it would use to snuff out Ukrainian resistance could slow down Russian gains elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.

But U.S. Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday that the United States saw no correlation between the Victory Day celebrations and the Kremlin’s tactical approach to the war, adding that Russia’s military progress in the Donbas remained “uneven.” Other experts believe Putin isn’t under pressure to produce a clear victory by the May 9 commemoration simply because he commands so much control over the country and the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has kept a tight lid on Russia’s embarrassing military failures at home.

“I’m not sure Putin is under so much pressure that it seems to us,” said Middlebury’s McGlynn. “We all know how badly the Russian military is doing, but obviously most Russians don’t, and even if they did, the control [Putin has] is so total that I don’t think he’s under the same level of pressure” as the leader of a democratic country would be, she added.

Open-source intelligence analysts who have been tracking Russia’s preparations for the parade in Moscow’s Red Square expect it to be significantly scaled down from recent years, a possible sign of the setbacks Russia has faced in its war in Ukraine. Gone are the artillery pieces and long-range fires paraded in Moscow in 2021, which Russia has sent into the Donbas; they are expected to be replaced with Soviet-era Grad rockets.

Just 131 vehicles are expected to take part in the procession, considerably fewer than the Kremlin rolled out last year. And Russia’s planned flyover of the parade with jets in a “Z” formation, Russia’s symbol for victory, will be done with outmoded MiG-29 fighters, not the country’s state-of-the-art Sukhoi fighter jets. Internet sleuths also spotted some of the Russian vehicles deployed in Ukraine decorated with the Cross of St. George—a sign that they might’ve been originally dedicated for the World War II anniversary.

“If I was Putin, I’d want to make a bigger parade this year than normal,” said Oliver Alexander, an independent open-source analyst who has been following Russia’s preparations for the parade. “It being significantly scaled down isn’t really a sign that things are going great.”



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