Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has marked the traditional May 9 Victory Day celebrations with no victory to celebrate. His plans to conquer Ukraine, perhaps replace its government with a Russia-friendly one, have been thwarted.
With no significant achievement on the battlefield, Putin was reduced on Monday to twisting history, claiming victimhood and fabricating yet another conspiracy theory in order to justify Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a neighboring country and the mounting cost it is inflicting on his own people.
In Putin’s telling, Russia had no choice but to defend itself from a growing menace. Russia sought reasonable compromise, but “NATO countries did not want to listen to us…[they] had entirely different plans, and we saw this,” he said at a military parade in Moscow Red Square.
“In Kyiv,” he added – falsely – “they announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the NATO bloc began actively taking military control of territories adjacent to ours.” A clash with the “neo-Nazis” was “inevitable.” Then came Putin’s declaration of victory, such 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 besieged, defiant man, trying to explain, to outflank his critics.
He tried to craft a direct link between the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, which the May 9 celebrations commemorate, to the fight in Ukraine. The connection is a phony, slanderous rewriting of history.
Instead of an intimidating message to the world, Putin undercut his own claim to the Russian people that this is not a war. It would be difficult for a Russian citizen watching the president rationalize the need for the “special military operation,” not to take away the unmistakable sense the country is at war – a banned term. The bulk of the speech aimed to explain to the Russian people why Russian soldiers are dying. Why life is changing.
Russia, according to Putin, is defending itself against an aggressive, ever more threatening NATO. Putin even tried to portray himself as the defender of traditional values against the West’s “moral degradation.” It’s the kind of rhetoric that feeds his far-right supporters on Western propaganda networks. But it does nothing to change a dismal reality.
In the early days of the now 10-week-old war, when the Kremlin expected a quick, easy victory, Russia had apparently hoped to have a big parade in Kyiv. But Russia’s disastrous performance on the battlefield, coupled with the Ukrainians’ fierce resistance, boosted by weapons from abroad, made it impossible.
Instead, Russia has been left to put on a show, staging one of its undeniably impressive military parades. Though this year’s was much less awe-inspiring than previous ones. The soldiers marched in perfect synchrony, their chins defiantly turned upward, their uniforms crisp, the weapons rumbling on Red Square. But the celebration had a different atmosphere.
Russia’s briefly-vaunted military machine looks like a Potemkin army. Putin’s reputation as an uncommonly skilled strategist lies in ruins. Instead of conquering or even weakening Ukraine he has electrified Ukraine’s sense of nationhood and its commitment to follow its own path. Instead of turning Ukraine’s Russian speakers against the central government, he has made Ukrainians unite in their disdain for Moscow. Instead of dividing NATO he has united it, and potentially led to its expansion.
The fumbling Kremlin even threw in some gaslighting on Victory Day. The much-anticipated air portion of the show promised to be spectacular, with 77 aircraft slicing the sky, marking 77 years since the Nazi surrender and making the shape of a Z, the insignia of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Mysteriously, the airshow was canceled. The cause was bad weather, according to Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. But for those of us watching on TV, the skies were blue, a perfect day for a parade – and for flying. Don’t believe your lying eyes, the Kremlin seemed to be saying, in keeping with the runway of lies on which it launched this war.
In previous Victory Day celebrations, world leaders stood on the reviewing stand alongside Putin. After all, defeating the Nazis was a victory not just for the allies who fought them but for humanity.
Putin has stood 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 are flocking to Kyiv, to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelensky, who marked the occasion in his own poignant fashion.
Putin has tried to paint 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 of himself walking in the streets of Kyiv to mark the occasion. “We will never forget what our ancestors did in World War II,” he vowed. “Very soon,” he added, twisting a rhetorical knife, “there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine – and someone won’t have any.”
His message to Putin, to the Ukrainian people, and to those around the world was clear: “We won then. We will win now. Happy Victory over Nazism Day!”
The question now, after a day when many expected Putin to announce a national mobilization, is what happens next with his war. The Russian president did not let out any hints of what his plan is. But by again casting the war as one against Nazis, and as a defensive one over which he had no choice, he implicitly told the Russian people the conflict will continue.
At the same time, he spoke only of the Donbas region in the east, not of the rest of Ukraine. Putin’s goals in Ukraine have been sharply reduced. The focus has decisively shifted away from Kyiv, away from control of the country.
Now Putin wants to seize Donbas, and perhaps Ukraine’s entire coast on the Black Sea, which would cripple Ukraine’s economy. But even that is not going well.
In rewriting the past, Putin has to contend with the present. And the reality on this Victory Day, despite all the suffering and devastation he has inflicted on Ukraine, is that Putin has no victory to celebrate.