Editor’s Note: James Nixey is the director of the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, specializing in the relationships between Russia and the other post-Soviet states. He previously worked as an investigative reporter at the Moscow Tribune. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On May 9 – known as Victory Day in Russia – President Vladimir Putin will need to make a bombastic and very public display to suggest he is winning the war in Ukraine.
But more than two months in, the war is going far from how Russia originally envisaged. May 9, then, might present Putin the occasion to declare a symbolic “victory” over Ukraine – a great demonstration of patriotic ecstasy aimed at shoring up his manipulated, sanction-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 victory on May 8).
Moscow initially 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 enormous 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 in the course of the Second World War – many of them in the then-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus.
Over the entirety of his regime, Soviet-leader Joseph Stalin killed more people both in his own country and in occupied territories than Adolf Hitler. But these days it is a crime in Russia to recall this history, or to compare the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union with those of Nazi Germany. Fresh flowers are still placed on Stalin’s grave in Red Square – where the May 9 victory parade is held.
How important is May 9 to Putin?
Vladimir Putin is an ultra-nationalist who does not believe Russia’s territorial and political ambitions should end at its internationally recognized boundaries. The countries that used to make up the Soviet Union other than Russia are not considered sovereign by Russia – by most Russians in fact, and especially by Putin.
But with no friendly tools to attract other countries available, to retain or regain an empire Russia needs a powerful army. May 9 is designed to show off to the home crowd, to intimidate the opposition and to please the dictator of the time (over the years, all secretaries-general of the Communist Party similarly stood on Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square acknowledging Russia’s military might with satisfaction as it drove past and flew over).
Ukraine is deeply personal to Putin (but, fortunately, for the future of Ukraine, even more personal to Ukrainians). Its “waywardness” is a betrayal and its very existence an historical aberration, in the eyes of the Russian President. Something had to be done about Ukraine’s Western ambitions and as Russian style diplomacy (read: coercion) had failed, Putin felt forced to turn to more muscular methods to “restore rightness.”
What he didn’t realize (although nor, to be fair, did most Western analysts) was how fundamentally corrupted and incompetent Russia’s supposedly modernized and professionalized fighting force had become.
Ukraine’s heroic resistance deserves every credit. But they couldn’t have achieved it without the Russians army’s inadvertent help. Meanwhile, such is the vertical nature of Russia’s political structures, there is surely little accurate information circulating among the rest of Putin’s elites on the state of play.
What could this mean for the course of the war?
If Western analysts are correct that Putin has demanded victory by Victory Day, this means Russia’s military commanders need to achieve something – anything – after the humiliating defeats in the first two months of this war.
The attempt to take Kyiv was repelled, the Russian fleet’s flagship cruiser has been sunk by a country effectively without a Navy, and they have lost at least 15,000 soldiers – far more than in all previous post-Soviet campaigns (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine 2014) combined.
Russia’s Plan B (or more likely plan F or G) is to redouble efforts and ground forces and focus on taking more of Ukraine’s east; and hopefully for the Kremlin, but far less likely, the rest of the Black Sea seaboard.
Whether this can be done in time for the May 9 parade is highly debatable. Ukrainians are still receiving weaponry and morale is high – although Kyiv controls the information surrounding the war and we do not know the real state of their armed forces. Its greatest challenge (from the east) is yet to come however, and the next few weeks will see intensified fighting as Russia tries to capture more land in Donbas.
The question remains, however, whether Moscow will seek to continue the offensive beyond its minor territorial gains or choose to “freeze” positions on the ground – dig into Ukrainian territory and sue Ukraine for peace as the war enters a new, more static, phase. Recent attempts to destabilize Moldova through its Russian-controlled breakaway territory Transnistria remind us that Moscow won’t give up so easily.
Both sides are effectively maneuvering for a better position at the negotiating table when that time eventually comes. In military terms, the war might be reaching a stalemate in the coming weeks, where neither side has sufficient force to completely change the tide of war and achieve a decisive victory over the other.
What appears to be Putin’s strategy in Ukraine?
Russia’s tactics may have changed, but its strategy – that is to say its overall goal – has not. That goal is to ensure that Ukraine is no longer an independent country able to make its choice to be European and westward-facing.
The good news is the objective cannot possibly be realized. Ukraine’s subjugation – physically or politically – is forever beyond Russia’s grasp now. Russia has not performed well enough on the battlefield or in the political arena to make it so. The bad news is that Russia does not yet know this and so will continue to send its own men, and far too many Ukrainians as well, to their deaths.
Russia does at least know that this is not solely a war against Ukraine, but against the rules-based international order, which it has not profited from. Russia has been saying this for over a decade. NATO knows this, too, but refuses to publicly recognize this to help prevent it from getting dragged in (discussions with NATO in private are a different matter).
If sanctions are maintained, Europe can continue to wean itself off Russian energy, and if foreign investors remain deterred, the Kremlin will run out of money later in the year – this in turn may dictate an eventual change of policy. But not by May 9. None of these changes will be visible by then – in the “progress” of the war or in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
So May 9 will be a show of strength as it always is. But it will be hollow. Just like, as I suspect, the feeling in the pit of Putin’s stomach.