LONDON — On May 9, Russia will celebrate Victory Day, its huge national holiday commemorating the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis during World War II with a military parade through the streets of Moscow.
Reports suggest that, in terms of firepower, it will be a less extravagant displaywith fewer tanks and other military hardware set to take part, but this year’s event carries extra significance.
“The original significance of V Day was the same for the USSR as for the other allies,” Catriona Kelly, a professor of Russian and Soviet Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge, told ABC News. “In the 1990s, on the other hand, commemoration became much less important, and was revived again, on an unprecedented scale, in the Putin era.”
What to expect
Under Putin, Victory Day has become Russia’s central national holiday and veneration of the Soviet victory a cornerstone of his regime. Putin revived the military parades marking the holiday, and they have grown in size almost each year since 2014, becoming a showcase of Russian military might.
War commemoration serves as a “basis of an aggressive patriotism based on the perception of an external threat to the country’s survival,” Kelly said.
An estimated 27 million people from the Soviet Union died during the Second World War, an enormous death toll that dwarfs that of other countries, and memory of the war still holds deep personal significance for many Russians.
Putin’s avowed goal to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is directly linked to the Kremlin’s efforts to cultivate that history for its political ends, according to Mark Galeotti, a security expert on Russian affairs.
“Largely the whole point was exactly to try and wrap this war in the mantle of what they call the Great Patriotic War,” Galeotti said. “Remember, Putin expected this to be a quick and easy victory in two weeks. I think this was going to be his kind of claim to historical fame. You know, this is going to be his moment, he wanted it to be comparable to victory over Nazis.”
Ukraine and Western countries, as well as independent experts, believe the Kremlin had hoped to set Victory Day as a deadline to achieve a military victory in the war with Ukraine or at least to declare the conquest of the Donbas region.
But the disastrous course of the war so far for Russia — that has seen it retreat from Kyiv and its current offensive on east Ukraine now stalled — has forced the Kremlin to approach the day differently.
The British armed forces minister recently said that Russia will “probably” use Victory Day as an opportunity to formally declare war on Ukraine, but the Kremlin has denied this.
“That would be a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of Victory Day to declare war, which in itself would allow them to surge conscripts in a way they’re not able to do now,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters recently. “In a way, that would be tantamount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are floundering in their military campaign and military objectives.”
Controlling the narrative
During the past ten weeks of war, many analysts have pointed to May 9 as a key marker, a date where Putin will have to show the Russian people a “prize” from the war, which is only referred to in the country as a ” special military operations.”
That “prize” could be Mariupol, the beleaguered port city that has been the site of some of the worst fighting and bombing since the war began, though there is no hiding that the war has not gone to plan.
“Any Russian victory that can be proclaimed at this stage will look like an approximation at best, though the onslaught on Azovstal in Mariupol in recent days suggests that complete capture of the city will be represented as a prize” on May 9, Kelly said.
Ukraine’s military has claimed that the streets of the city, where tens of thousands are feared to have been killed under the Russian assault, are being cleared of debris in preparation for a parade there on Victory Day.
Russian intelligence assessments initially said that the capital of Kyiv would fall within a matter of days of the invasion, but stiff Ukrainian resistance and a united front in the West have now changed the kind of Victory Day the Kremlin will be commemorating. Even so, Putin retains a tight control of the narrative around the war, and so far, the impact that could reverberate at home when news of the thousands of Russians killed emerges, has not been felt.
“I’m sure Putin would have loved to have had the victory to announce for Victory Day,” Galeotti told ABC News. “But … when you have all the state media under your control and you’ve squeezed out every element of independent media, in some ways you get to write the narrative, and then the narrative will be that Mariupol is won, that this was never about taking all of Ukraine.”
From the information available, public opinion seems to be narrowly in favor of the war in Russia, though Galeotti said the image projected of the “special operation” in the Russian media has “nothing at all to do with the reality of what’s happened.”
Whatever Putin says in his speech on Victory Day, there has been no suggestion that Russia will be winding down its war anytime sooneven if their war aims have now changed to create a land corridor to Crimea.
“Putin has to ‘win’, or to put it differently, he has no reverse gear,” Kelly said. “That means his only means of reacting to a miscalculation is to fight back. All the evidence suggests that he expected a rapid collapse of the Ukrainian armed forces of the kind that happened in Crimea in 2014. And he didn’t expect pushback from Western countries on the level there has been. Ukraine has been a shock from both points of view and is the biggest challenge of his political career.”