In a war like this, what does winning actually look like?
That’s a question Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to answer, at least implicitly, as his country marks Monday’s one of its biggest and most bombastic patriotic holidays, Victory Day — a highly choreographed celebration of Moscow’s military might that uncomfortably coincides this year the unlikely resistance of a smaller neighbor in the face of a devastating 10-week attack.
“There is no victory to announce,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London. “That’s why he has to call out one all the louder.”
The war against Ukraine – the “special military operation,” as the Kremlin dubbed its February 24 invasion – can by no means be described as going according to plan. Putin’s armies have killed thousands, leveled once-bustling cities, fled more than 5.7 million people into exile, and inflicted billions of dollars in damage in Ukraine, a country of 44 million people that became a sovereign nation more than three decades ago Union imploded.
But in these weeks of war, Putin’s once vaunted military has failed to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, or oust its government. Russia has also suffered the ignominious sinking of a flagship missile cruiser and suffered military losses likely to exceed those of the Soviets’ characteristic debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The invasion of Ukraine reinvigorated the NATO alliance, battered Russia’s economy and plunged the country’s 144 million people into a level of isolation not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War.
Russia, which met little resistance when it seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, appeared to have hoped for a quick victory and the imminent installation of a puppet government as its troops and tanks crossed the borders rolled.
Instead, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has attained almost ecclesiastical stature as a war leader, and Western dignitaries are pouring into Kyiv on an almost daily basis, squandering cash, arms and statements of support for Zelenskyy’s government.
Still, this is seen by many as a particularly dangerous moment in the war, as Ukraine and its allies wonder if Putin, furious at a triumph he has eluded, will strike in a way he has yet to in this conflict has not given.
Monday’s holiday marks the 77th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, a day of deep emotional resonance for Russians who still remember the staggering 27 million deaths in World War II.
In Moscow’s Red Square, 69-year-old Putin is expected to lead a cavalcade of troops and tanks, rockets and long-range ballistic missiles. Military flyovers will reportedly include a targeted display — the first in more than a decade — of Russia’s “doomsday” airborne command center, an aircraft designed to ferry senior leaders and military officials in the event of a nuclear exchange.
On a day whose overt theme is glorious victory, however, the Ukraine war offers “very, very little spoils,” said James Nixey, who runs the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a British think tank.
Putin, he said, “will have to invent a narrative, they have to say something, announce something, show that they have achieved something, and for that there is limited choice.”
In recent weeks, Ukrainian and Western analysts and officials have been playing out various Victory Day scenarios: Moscow is trying to deliver a decisive strike on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, punitive attacks on cities far from the front lines, or formally more territory just under to annex the most shaky under Russian control.
Other possibilities: a formal declaration of war by Russia accompanied by a mass mobilization of troops, or a nuclear saber-rattling that is even more worrying than that of recent weeks. Or a Russian push into Moldova, a small, impoverished, non-NATO country bordering Ukraine.
In the eyes of many Ukrainians, Putin’s main claim to success on the battlefield in Ukraine is a Pyrrhic claim: the expected ultimate capture of Mariupol, the now devastated southern port where some of Russia’s worst atrocities are said to have taken place.
Much of the city is in ruins; City authorities say bombing, starvation and deprivation have killed more than 20,000 residents. Satellite images have located mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
Hundreds were believed to have been buried when in March Russia bombed a landmark theater in whose basement desperate families had taken refuge, and a Mariupol maternity hospital suffered a hit that sent frightened pregnant women fleeing – at least those who are survived.
Defenders of a sprawling steel factory complex have assembled a desperate last stand, with widespread expectations that Russia would wipe out remaining combatants and civilians alike in order to announce the city’s “liberation” in time for Monday.
However, some observers say that a narrative of conquest could be carved out of very little in Putin’s Russia, with the dire conditions in the combat zone serving as evidence that Russian troops are fighting valiantly to protect the homeland and Russian-speaking Ukraine.
Analysts say the concept of a Tsarist-era Potemkin village — an artificial construct designed to offer a false but convincing exterior — could become a chronicle of the supposed achievements made in Ukraine, especially after months of unrelenting official propaganda about the probity of the people Ukraine Russian thing.
“I don’t think they need an actual victory on May 9, just pictures of combat operations that they can show the Russian people,” Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Center for Military and Legal Studies, told Ukraine’s online portal NV. For example, Russian forces could use video of a temporary breach by Ukraine’s defenses in a local area to claim a major conquest, he said.
The eastern front lines are fluid, with some settlements repeatedly changing hands and Russia has made little significant progress since it reportedly began its eastern offensive two weeks ago, Western analysts said.
The devastated ruins of Mariupol could provide a gruesome backdrop for some sort of victory parade on Monday, Ukrainian officials say. They have reported that Russian forces are bribing starving locals to get to work clearing the wreckage of weeks of relentless bombing.
“Work against Essen – this is the best example of this ‘victory’,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week he didn’t know if there would be a Victory Parade in the city.
Ukrainian officials said an announced troop mobilization by Russia would help Russia rebuild and rebuild units crushed by an unsuccessful attempt in March to capture the capital. Earlier in the week, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service Kyrylo Budanov said that such an attempt was already underway and that the holiday was an excuse to launch such an action.
In a number of locations, including areas where few attacks have occurred, community officials urged people to stay indoors and avoid large gatherings in the run-up to Monday.
The timing of the warning was particularly poignant in a country where many graves have been dug in recent weeks. According to Orthodox Christian tradition, the weeks after Easter, which fell on April 24 this year, are a time to visit the cemetery, often in the company of relatives.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko wrote in the messaging app Telegram that people should avoid visiting cemeteries in groups.
On Monday, Russia is expected to take the opportunity to underscore the Kremlin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is a hapless pawn of the West and that the real battle is between Russia and the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Such a claim could serve as a pretext for waging a war that is “dragging,” even a Putin ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, conceded in an interview with the Associated Press this week.
In his awaited speech, Putin is likely to base himself on another familiar — and unfounded — theme: comparing the war in Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany, the ostensible reason for Monday’s celebrations. The Kremlin falsely insists that Ukraine is being ruled and overrun by Nazis.