Publisher’s note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) former producer and correspondent for CNN, is a columnist on world affairs. She is a weekly opinion contributor for CNN, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a columnist for the World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this comment belong solely to the author of it. See more opinions on CNN.
(CNN)– Russian President Vladimir Putin commemorated the traditional Victory Day on May 9 without any victory to celebrate. His plans to conquer the Ukraine, and perhaps to replace his government with one favorable to Russia, have been frustrated.
Without any significant achievements on the battlefield, Putin found himself reduced on Monday to twist history, claim victimhood and fabricate yet another conspiracy theory to justify Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a neighboring country and the mounting cost it is inflicting on its own people.
According to Putin, Russia had no choice but to defend itself against a growing threat. Russia sought a reasonable agreement, but “the NATO countries did not want to listen to us… [tenían] totally different plans, and we saw it,” he said at a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square.
“In Kyiv,” he falsely added, “they announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the NATO bloc began to actively take military control of the territories adjacent to ours.” A clash with the “neo-Nazis” was “inevitable”. Then came the victory declaration of Putin, as it was: “Russia repelled this aggression”.
A subdued Putin did not sound like the triumphant leader of a victorious nation. Instead, he sounded like a beleaguered and defiant man, trying to explain, to outdo his critics.
He tried to establish a direct link between the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, commemorated on May 9, and the fighting in the Ukraine. The connection is a false and slanderous rewriting of history.
Instead of a threatening message to the world, Putin undermines his own claim to the Russian people that this is not a war. It would be hard for a Russian citizen to see the president rationalize the need for the “special military operation,” not shake off the unmistakable feeling that the country is at war, a forbidden term.
Most of the speech was aimed at explaining to the Russian people why Russian soldiers are dying. Why is life changing?
Russia, according to Putin, is defending itself against an aggressive and increasingly threatening NATO. Putin even tried to present himself as the defender of traditional values against the “moral degradation” of the West. It’s the kind of rhetoric that feeds his far-right supporters into Western propaganda networks. But it does nothing to change a grim reality.
In the early days of the war, now spanning 10 weeks, when the Kremlin expected a quick and easy victory, Russia apparently hoped to make a big parade in Kyiv. But Russia’s disastrous performance on the battlefield, coupled with the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians, fueled by weapons from abroad, made this impossible.
Instead, Russia had to put on a show, staging one of its undeniably impressive military parades. Although this year’s was much less impressive than the previous ones. The soldiers paraded in perfect synchronicity, their defiant chins up, their uniforms crisp, weapons thundering across Red Square. But the celebration had a different atmosphere.
The briefly praised Russian military machine looks like a Potemkin Army. Putin’s reputation as an exceptionally skilled strategist is in tatters. Instead of conquering or even weakening Ukraine, he has boosted Ukraine’s sense of nationhood and its commitment to follow his own path. Rather than turn Russian-speaking Ukraine against the central government, he has made Ukrainians unite in their contempt for Moscow. Instead of dividing NATO, he has united it, and potentially will lead to expansion.
The Kremlin’s clumsiness even tried to gaslight on Victory Day. The long-awaited air parade promised to be spectacular, with 77 planes soaring through the sky, marking 77 years since the Nazi surrender and making the shape of a Z, the insignia of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
Mysteriously, the air show was cancelled. The cause was bad weather, according to Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. But for those of us who saw it on television, the sky was blue, a perfect day for a parade… and for flying.
Don’t believe your lying eyes, the Kremlin seemed to say, well aligned with the pack of lies it launched this war on.
In previous Victory Day celebrations, world leaders have stood on the rostrum alongside Putin. After all, defeating the Nazis was a victory not only for the allies who fought against them, but for humanity.
Putin has been on that date shoulder to shoulder with the presidents of the United States and France, the prime ministers of Italy and Japan, the German chancellor and the secretary general of the United Nations.
This year, Russia was alone. World leaders flocked to Kyiv to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who marked the occasion in his own way.
Putin has tried to present the victory over the Nazis as a Russian feat. But it was the Soviet Union, along with the Allies, who defeated Hitler.
And the Soviet Union included Ukraine.
Zelensky, dressed in his familiar military olive green, posted a video in which he appeared walking through the streets of Kyiv to mark the occasion. “We will never forget what our ancestors did in World War II,” she promised. “Very soon,” she added, twisting a rhetorical knife, “there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine, and someone will have none.”
His message to Putin, the Ukrainian people and the whole world was clear: “We won then. We will win now. Happy Victory Day over Nazism.”
The question now, after a day in which many expected Putin to announce a national mobilization, is what happens to his war now? The president of Russia did not hint what his plan is. But by re-presenting the war as a war against the Nazis, and as a defensive war over which he has no choice, he implicitly told the Russian people that the conflict will continue.
At the same time, he spoke only about the Donbas region in the east, and not about the rest of Ukraine. Putin’s targets in Ukraine have been drastically reduced. The focus has decisively shifted away from Kyiv, from controlling the country.
Now Putin wants to seize the Donbas, and perhaps the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast, which would cripple Ukraine’s economy. But even that doesn’t go well.
In rewriting the past, Putin has to confront the present. And the reality on this Victory Day, despite all the suffering and devastation he has inflicted on Ukraine, is that he has no victory to celebrate.