Vladimir Putin had no victories in Ukraine to proclaim on Victory Day. Nor did his speech at the Red Square military parade offer any clear pictures of when a victory may come or how it would be achieved.
Instead, the Russian president’s address Monday seemed to suggest that the war that many expected would be brief and decisive could be a long and brutal grind.
Victory Day commemorates another campaign of grisly determination: the Red Army’s offensive against Nazi forces that eventually brought the Soviet troops to Berlin, ending the European theater of World War II. The suffering was immense on the battlefield and among civilians; the Soviet Union lost 27 million people in the war.
The pain of all the deaths combines with the defeat of odious opponents to give Victory Day a deep emotional resonance in Russia. Putin on Monday tried to portray the war in Ukraine as having the same high moral purpose as the fight against Adolf Hitler’s forces.
He repeated his frequent contention that Ukraine is in thrall to Nazism and that this war, too, is necessary to repel a malign aggressor – even though Ukraine had made no incursions into Russia and is led by a president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.
The strategy appears aimed in part at diverting attention from Russia’s failure to overcome the smaller Ukrainian military.
“The regime has no more screws to turn. The brakes have clearly failed, and only one pedal is left: conflating what Russia is doing in Ukraine with the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. This explains why the Kremlin continues to insist that in Ukraine it is fighting neo-Nazis cultivated by the West,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote shortly before Victory Day.
“Every word is a lie, of course,” he added, “but the regime has no other justification for what is happening in Ukraine. So the discourse has been reduced to agitprop and shouting,”
Ahead of the holiday, expectations were wide that Putin would push for at least one unequivocal military success that he could flaunt in his speech. That might have been the city of Mariupol, but despite Russian forces laying waste to the city, a determined Ukrainian contingent still puts up resistance while holed up in a steel mill.
Some speculated that recent explosions in Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, where Russia has about 1,500 troops based, could be provocations to justify Russia trying to take control of that area by Victory Day. But Russia has only bombed a railway bridge in Ukraine that is the main transport link to Transnistria.
The most intense speculation was that Putin would use Victory Day to declare the fight in Ukraine was a full-fledged war, rather than a “special military operation” as the Kremlin insists it be called, and that this would prompt a general mobilization to bring in vast numbers of new soldiers. But he did not do that either.
”There seems an awareness of the political risks at home of national mobilization. So there is a real sense in which the Kremlin is faced with growing difficulties and dilemmas in this war that it has chosen to unleash,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press.
In any case, announcing a national mobilization would not foretell a swift end to the war.
“Mobilization isn’t like a button you press and then suddenly Russia has more access to military power than before. It takes time to mobilize and not just to call up, but to conscript the population essentially, but also to supply them as well. And so it wouldn’t make any immediate difference,” Gould-Davies said.
An indelible image for Victory Day is the dramatic photo of a soldier raising the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag atop the Reichstag in 1945, ruined buildings stretching to the horizon. Putin’s speech gave no hint of whether he envisions a similar scene of occupation as the final goal of the Ukraine war, or whether Russia would settle for partitioning off of the eastern republics that it has declared are sovereign states.
And Putin has never explained what his call for “denazification” of Ukraine entails.
The speech was full of emotion and self-justification, yet empty of information.
“It’s the dog that didn’t bark,” Gould-Davies said. “There was no new announcement, but no clear way out of the problems that they have created for themselves.”
Danica Kirka is a London-based writer covering international affairs who has reported from Russia and Ukraine.