KYIV – The expectation that Victory Day would be a turning point in the Russia-Ukraine war have proven unfounded. Russian President Vladimir Putin used his speech in Moscow Monday to equate the war against Nazi Germany to the current one in Ukraine – or as he described it, “fighting for our people in Donbas, for the security of our homeland.” But beyond his standard accusations against the West and NATO for the war, he had nothing new to say.
If anything, the grandiose military parade, which for some reason this year didn’t include the massive flyby of fighter jets, bombers and helicopters, symbolized how hollow and limited the Russian threat has now become.
The main prediction was that Putin would use this date to declare officially, for the first time, “war” on Ukraine. This would have enabled him to mobilize all Russia’s resources.
There are two key reasons why Putin probably decided not to do that.
The first is that despite the popularity of the war among large parts of the Russian population, this is at least partly due to the fact that they indeed see it as a relatively limited “special military operation” – one in which only professional soldiers, mainly from far-flung regions of the Russian Federation, are taking part. A full-scale war in which conscripts from the big cities will be sent to die on the front lines is another matter altogether.
The second reason is that even if Putin was willing to stake his popularity on general mobilization, it probably wouldn’t change the military balance with Ukraine anytime soon.
There is no comparison between the type of warfare back in the war that was being commemorated Monday and that taking place in Ukraine today. Sending waves of young soldiers who can’t survive on a modern battlefield would accomplish nothing.
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The Soviet factories cranked out tens of thousands of simple yet sturdy T-34 tanks that successfully fought the German Panzers. The kind of tanks and armored vehicles Russia needs to withstand Ukrainian anti-tank missiles are much more complex and time-consuming to produce in significant numbers.
Russia’s population may be three and a half times that of Ukraine, but simply drafting a million young men – who don’t want to fight – is not enough. The Russian army is not prepared to train and equip them adequately for an intense war against a modern, conventional army that is highly motivated in defending its territory and has spent the last eight years adopting Western tactics.
It would take years and major resources that Russia has yet to commit to this war to bring its army to a place where it could decisively beat the Ukrainians.
The motto being used in recent years in Russia – “We can do it again” – refers to the bravery and sacrifice of the Red Army and the Soviet people in the war against Nazi Germany. In Russia’s current condition, it very obviously cannot do it again, not even against a much smaller enemy. In that context, the Russian soldiers on parade reenacting the Red Army’s armored column looked little more than cosplayers with a World War II fetish.
There were other predictions that Putin would use May 9 to declare “victory” in Ukraine and perhaps cut his losses. That didn’t happen either. Instead, he just confirmed that the fighting would go on in Donbas, without any triumphalism.
It seems even Putin understands that Russia’s failures in this war so far cannot be covered up by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. There are limits to the credulity of the Russian public, which is why the only message he could deliver was one of continuing struggle with the hope of victory in the future.
This also means that Putin still believes he can achieve his goals of paralyzing and eventually eliminating Ukraine as an independent entity. All that is required is perseverance and a willingness for sacrifice, just like the World War II veterans sitting around him on the stage showed all those decades ago.
It was just the veterans with Putin. Unlike previous years, no foreign leaders came as his guests – not even fellow dictators of vassal states. No one wants to be seen with Putin.
Rather than presenting Russia as a world power, the Victory Day celebrations put Putin’s isolation and Russia’s limitations on full display. It is hard not to compare the sight of a frustrated and lonely president to that of his rival, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who over the past weekend hosted a star-studded list of international guests – including first lady Jill Biden and the members of U2.
Zelenskyy still had time to film a video of himself walking alone on Kyiv’s central Khreschatyk Street, which had been destroyed in World War II and then rebuilt, telling the story of how Ukrainians had fought the Nazis and promising that when this war is over, they will have their own victory parade there – and “we will have two victory days, and they will have none.”