Russia’s Victory Day has had an evolving makeover during President Vladimir Putin’s reign.
Increasingly militarizing the commemorative holiday, with more advanced military hardware showcased and political twists added, Vladimir Putin and his choreographers have weaponized the memory of the Great Patriotic War. Using the massive wartime sacrifice as a cultural reference point to blame the West for disrespect: he has constantly complained of Western historians and leaders’ failure to acknowledge the overwhelming importance of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany — evidence of their underlying aim to debase Russia.
So, what will Putin pull out of his hat this Monday, as Russia celebrates its victory over the Nazis while stuck in the middle of a conflict the Kremlin (absurdly) claims is being fought to de-Nazify Ukraine?
Will he formally declare war, saying the pretense that Russia is just engaged in a “special military mission” across the border? Or would that risk too sharp a shift in narrative, signaling to ordinary Russians that the invasion has gone seriously awry?
Could he use the occasion to announce a full-scale mobilization or a call-up of reservists to replenish the depleted ranks of his struggling invasion force? And how would that sit with the mothers of Russian soldiers, who have been a sharp thorn in the authorities’ side before and have already demanded transparent casualty figures from a reluctant Kremlin? Western officials estimate Russia’s death toll may already be as many as 20,000 — 5,000 more war dead than its armed forces suffered in Afghanistan over 10 years.
Victory Day is meant to be uplifting and positive in nature — a patriotic occasion to project invincibility and confidence, a piece of theater to underline Russia’s importance as a global power, not a day to admit setbacks. But for Putin, there appear few good options.
One thing he could do is use the occasion to boast of small “triumphs” — the sack of Mariupol, or the capture of Kherson.
And that may suffice, thanks to Kremlin propaganda’s hold over the country, which has been partly returned to the dystopian Stalin-era, with a vicious suppression of dissent and the forced closure of the few remaining sources of independent news and commentary.
Ukrainians now frequently complain they are finding it impossible to convince relatives in Russia about the horrors being inflicted there — state propaganda is working. Most Russians get their news from state-controlled television channels, and if the TV’s saying the country’s army is succeeding, then why not believe the claims? The added economic hardships are just the price to pay to protect Mother Russia from foes, after all. And Western sanctions have yet to impact most Russian lives beyond the well-heeled in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But given Putin’s obsession with anniversaries, most seasoned observers suspect the Russian leader will want to mark Monday with an even bigger splash.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has hazarded Putin might use May 9 to declare, “We are now at war with the world’s Nazis and we need to mass-mobilise the Russian people.” Wallace added in a radio interview in London that Putin’s “been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people.’”
Ukraine’s intelligence and security chiefs have also suggested the Kremlin might be preparing for a broader mobilization — something the Kremlin has denied. In Kyiv a think tank has suggested that the Russian authorities might even parade captured Ukrainians — with Putin copying Joseph Stalin, who in July 1944 enraged Adolf Hitler by parading around 57,000 German prisoners of war through the Russian capital.
Western diplomats find that scenario unlikely, describing it as too macabre and needlessly provocative, although caution and prudence have not been noticeable Kremlin features recently. This week, the normally more sure-footed Sergei Lavrov, the country’s long-serving foreign minister, gratuitously offended Israel — which has been trying to maintain cordial relations with Moscow — by claiming Hitler had “Jewish blood.”
But there have been hints from Russian state television that something big might be coming, as star presenters have, alarmingly, become even more bellicose toward NATO, increasingly framing the clash in Ukraine in terms of a contest between Russia and the Western alliance.
In recent days, the truculent rhetoric has included a terrifying nonchalance regarding the risks of a nuclear exchange, with Margarita Simonyan, head of Kremlin-directed RT media, declaring on a show last week that she would be ready to accept Putin unleashing a nuclear war with NATO.
“The most incredible outcome, that all this will end with a nuclear strike, seems more probable to me than the other course of events,” she said. “We will go to heaven and they will simply croak,” the show’s host interjected, citing an old Putin comment. “We will all die sometime anyway,” Simonyan responded.
Similarly, another top host, Olga Skabeyeva, who presents Rossiya 1’s “60 Minutes” show, declared recently: “God is with us. And with Ukraine — the devil.” When the danger of a nuclear exchange was raised, she simply said, “We’ll start from scratch.”
Of course, Russian state television’s focus on the likelihood of a full-blown world war may simply be intimidatory, designed to give the West “food for thought,” as Putin commented when observing the launch of Russia’s latest ultra-advanced ballistic missile. But with Russians being told hour by hour, day in, day out that they face an existential threat, the Kremlin could finally stage something to match what Putin’s mouthpieces are saying.
The ramping up of anti-NATO rhetoric has already coincided with a ratcheting up of missile strikes on weapon depots and the routes for Western-supplied arms inside Ukraine — a bid to interdict the Western equipment making a big difference on the battlefield and bogging down the Russian army.
A bold declaration of war would be a domestic gamble for Putin, linking his political fate even more closely on the outcome in Ukraine, and he has already taken enormous risks in pursuit of his goal to make up for the indignity — as he sees it — of the Soviet Union’s collapse. There are indications, though, that he is coming under mounting pressure from some of the securocrats around him — pressure to go bigger and harder.