Publisher’s note: James Nixey is the director of the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House, specializing in relations between Russia and the other post-Soviet states. He previously worked as an investigative reporter at the Moscow Tribune.
(CNN) — On May 9, known as Victory in Russia Day, President Vladimir Putin will have to make a pompous and very public display to suggest that he is winning the war in Ukraine.
However, after more than two months, the war is developing very differently than Russia had anticipated. May 9, therefore, could offer Putin the chance to declare a symbolic “victory” over Ukraine, a grand display of patriotic ecstasy meant to shore up his manipulated, sanctions-weary audience.
The date marks the day Nazi Germany surrendered to Soviet forces (the day after its capitulation to the Western Allies, which is why the UK, US and their allies commemorate the victory on May 8).
Initially, Moscow partnered with Nazi Berlin to divide Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian regimes. But after that partnership ended with the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, the Soviet human contribution to defeating Germany, backed by huge shipments of food aid and military equipment from the UK, US and Canada, was critical.
the ussr lost tens of millions of soldiers and civilians during World War II, many of them in the then Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus.
Throughout his regime, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin killed more people, both in his own country and in the occupied territories, than Adolf Hitler. But today it is a crime in Russia to remember this history, or to compare the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union with those of Nazi Germany. Fresh flowers are still placed at Stalin’s grave on Red Square, where the May 9 victory parade is held.
How important is May 9 for Putin?
Vladimir Putin is an ultranationalist who does not believe that Russia’s territorial and political ambitions should end at its internationally recognized borders. The countries that made up the Soviet Union, apart from Russia, are not considered sovereign by Russia, in fact by most Russiansand especially by Putin.
But having no friendly tools to attract other countries, Russia needs a powerful army to keep or regain its empire. May 9 fulfills the function of showing off to the local public, intimidating the opposition and pleasing the dictator in power (over the years, all the general secretaries of the Communist Party appeared in a similar way at the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square with satisfaction in acknowledging Russia’s military might during their parade).
Ukraine is a deeply personal issue for Putin (but, fortunately, for Ukraine’s future, even more personal for Ukrainians). His “rebellion” is a betrayal and his very existence a historical aberration, in the eyes of the Russian president. Something had to be done about Ukraine’s Western ambitions, and since Russian-style diplomacy (read: coercion) had failed, Putin felt compelled to resort to more muscular methods to “restore righteousness.”
What he hadn’t considered (and, to be fair, neither had most Western analysts) was how fundamentally corrupt and incompetent the supposedly modernized and professionalized Russian fighting force had become.
The heroic Ukrainian resistance deserves all the credit. But they could not have done it without the unwitting help of the Russian Army. Meanwhile, such is the top-down nature of Russia’s political structures, there is surely little accurate information circulating among the rest of Putin’s elites about the state of affairs.
What could this mean for the course of the war?
If the western analysts They are correct that Putin has demanded a victory by Victory Day, this means that the Russian military leadership needs to achieve something, anything, after the humiliating defeats suffered in the first two months of this war.
The attempt to take Kyiv was repelled, the flagship of the Russian fleet was sunk by a country that effectively lacks a Navy, and they have lost at least 15,000 soldiers, many more than in all previous post-Soviet campaigns (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine 2014) together.
Russia’s plan B (or more likely plan F or G) is to redouble efforts and ground forces and focus on taking more of eastern Ukraine; and hopefully for the Kremlin, but much less likely, the rest of the Black Sea coast.
Whether this can be done in time for the May 9 parade is highly debatable. The Ukrainians continue to receive weapons and morale is high, although Kyiv controls the information surrounding the war and we do not know the real state of its armed forces. However, its biggest challenge (from the east) is yet to come, and fighting will intensify in the coming weeks as Russia tries to capture more ground in the Donbas region.
However, the question remains whether Moscow will try to continue the offensive beyond its small territorial gains or whether it will opt to “freeze” positions on the ground: entrench itself in Ukrainian territory and sue Ukraine for peace while the war enters a new, more static phase. Recent attempts to destabilize Moldova through its Russian-controlled breakaway territory Transnistria remind us that Moscow will not give up so easily.
Both sides are jockeying for a better position at the negotiating table when that time comes. In military terms, the war could be reaching a stalemate in the coming weeks, with neither side strong enough to turn the war around and achieve a decisive victory over the other.
What seems to be Putin’s strategy in Ukraine?
Russia’s tactics may have changed, but its strategy, that is, its overall objective, has not. That goal is to ensure that Ukraine ceases to be an independent country capable of making the decision to be European and look west.
The good news is that there is no way for it to achieve that goal. Ukraine’s subjugation, whether physical or political, is now forever beyond Russia’s grasp. Russia has not performed well enough on the battlefield or in the political arena to do so. The bad news is that Russia doesn’t know this yet and so it will continue to send its own men, and too many Ukrainians too, to their deaths.
Russia does know, at least, that it is not just a war against Ukraine, but against the rules-based international order, which has not benefited. Russia has been saying this for more than a decade. NATO also knows this, but refuses to admit it publicly to avoid being dragged into the conflict (private NATO discussions are another thing).
If sanctions remain in place, Europe may continue to bid farewell to Russian energy, and if foreign investors remain discouraged, the Kremlin will run out of money by the end of the year, which in turn may dictate an eventual policy change. But not before May 9. None of these changes will be visible by then, neither in the “progress” of the war nor in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
So May 9 will be a show of force, as it always is. But it will be hollow. Just like, I suspect, the feeling in the pit of Putin’s stomach.