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Putin is likely to use Russia's 'Victory Day' on May 9 to reveal plans for the future of his struggling Ukraine war, experts say

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a flower-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a flower-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021.Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images
  • Experts are looking for Putin to use May 9 to make a major announcement on the Ukraine war.

  • May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, a national celebration commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany.

  • Experts and officials believe Putin could use the day to escalate the war, or even falsely declare victory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to use May 9 to spread propaganda to Russians about the Ukraine war, and could use it as a means of formally ramping up the conflict, experts and officials say.

May 9 is traditionally when Russia celebrates "Victory Day," commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, having repelled them from Russian lands at a cost measured in tens of millions of lives. Russia marks the occasion with a military parade in Moscow, and Putin — who has a penchant for symbolic, Soviet-style events — delivers a speech.

"That muscular, martial image of Russia is one Putin loves; but it's also a unifying myth for Russia and Russians (i.e. the people and the state) under Putin," Simon Miles, a Russia expert and professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University, told Insider," adding, "WWII is tantamount to a state religion there."

Indeed, Putin has tried to stir patriotism by presenting the Ukraine war as necessary and anti-Nazi in an effort to evoke the existential conflict that Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

"I would not be surprised if Putin does formally escalate the war on 9 May somehow, maybe by formally declaring war and giving himself access to much more Russian manpower. But that manpower will take months (two to three) to actually get to the front lines and have any effect on the battlefield," Miles said.

Though Russia has been waging an unprovoked, full-scale war in Ukraine since February 24, the Kremlin has refused to call it a "war." Putin has dubbed the invasion a "special military operation."

Vladimir Putin during Victory Day celebrations
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Victory Day military parade in Red Square on May 9, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Some Western officials have also predicted that Putin could formally declare war on Victory Day, which would open the door for him to mobilize Russia's reserve forces.

"He's been...laying the ground for being able to say 'Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder,'" British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said of Putin during an LBC Radio interview in late April.

"He is probably going to declare on this May Day that 'we are now at war with the world's Nazis and we need to mass mobilize the Russian people,'" Wallace added. "To mass mobilize the Russian reserves is an admission of failure from a man who thought he would have got Ukraine in a couple of days."

But not everyone is convinced Putin will go this route, because it would contradict Russia's rhetoric and propaganda on the war up to this point that's being presented to Russians via state-run and -affiliated news organizations, whose employees (and the Russian population more generally) face 15 years in prison for unsanctioned depictions of the war. Mobilizing more troops would signal to Russians that the war isn't going well, in contrast to Russian officials' repeated statements that the war is going according to plan.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the Washington-based think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, in tweets on Wednesday said, "Declaring full mobilization is very fraught politically for Putin," adding that it "makes no sense from risk vs benefit trade off and is a de facto admission of defeat after feeding the domestic audience a steady stream of Russian supposed victories there and operation going 'according to plan.'"

"[The] Russian public currently supports the fake version of the war they are seeing on their TV screens. Most families don't know anyone who is fighting and dying (many soldiers are from poor villages and ethnic minorities). A huge mobilization would change all that and is very risky," Alperovitch said.

Russia has falsely claimed it's fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Putin could therefore also exploit the history and emotions surrounding May 9 as a means of furthering this erroneous narrative, Miles said.

"The ties between defeated (real) Nazis and fighting (imaginary Ukrainian) Nazis are powerful rhetoric, especially for an audience which has only been consuming Russian state TV's alternate reality," Miles said.

'Morale continues to be low'

A Russian soldier
on April 13, 2022, a Russian soldier stands guard at the Luhansk power plant in the town of Shchastya.Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images

Another option for Putin on May 9 would be to announce the formal annexation of Ukrainian territory, Miles said, perhaps even territories controlled in the Donbas and in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.

In the days leading up the invasion in late February, Putin recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk — pro-Moscow breakaway regions in the Donbas, the eastern Ukraine region that borders Russia.

Beginning in 2014, the same year Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the Kremlin began supporting rebels against Ukrainian forces in a war in the Donbas. At the start of the broader war that Putin launched in late February, the rebels controlled roughly one-third of the region. Putin recognized the separatist's claims to the entire territory shortly before announcing the start of the so-called "special operation."

Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on Monday warned that Putin would annex more Ukrainian territory and hold "sham" votes to give the moves a "veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy."

"We believe that Russia will try to annex the Donetsk 'people's republic' and Luhansk "people's republic,' in quotes, so-called, to Russia," Carpenter said.

There's also been speculation that Putin could use May 9 to declare victory in some capacity or an end to the invasion. Pope Francis recently said that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of the most pro-Putin NATO leaders in Central Europe, told him in April that "the Russians have a plan, that everything will end on May 9."

The war has been fairly disastrous for Russia so far. The Russian military has struggled to make major gains, failing to take Kyiv, and has now focused its assault on the Donbas. It's estimated Russia has lost up to 15,000 soldiers. The West has also slapped unprecedented sanctions on Russia, and Moscow has been isolated both economically and politically on the global stage.

In spite of Russia's battlefield losses and economic turmoil, Putin could still use the day to declare victory in Ukraine. After all, the 'Z' symbol Russians use to show their support for the war is believed to be based on the phrase "For victory" in Russian.

Along these lines, State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday said it "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, 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."

Correspondingly, Miles said he's "very skeptical that Russian forces in Ukraine are going to give Putin any good news to share," adding, "We saw a lot of reporting that he wanted some kind of victory to declare by then — he's not getting one."

"The Russian force is simply too exhausted to do much in the Donbas, their equipment is in rough shape, morale continues to be low," Miles added.

Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia's highest-ranking uniformed officer, recently visited the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, according to US and Ukrainian officials. The risky visit has been interpreted as a sign the situation is grim for Russian troops. "It likely means things are not going well for the Russians," Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told the New York Times this week.

"They've had thousands killed in action, troop morale is low, and, very significantly, their offensive in the south and east appears to be stalled," Crow added.

And even if Putin does declare victory, it does not necessarily mean an end to Russia's operations or presence in Ukraine. Putin previously declared "complete victory" in Syria, for example, but the Russian military remains active there.

Russia has denied that Putin will formally declare war on May 9 or announce an end to Russia's operations. But Moscow also claimed it had no plans to invade Ukraine in the weeks leading up to the war — even as Russia gathered tens of thousands of troops on the border — and there's little reason to take its word on this.

The White House, for its part, has refrained from making any definitive predictions on what Putin might do on May 9.

"We know that President Putin has emphasized the significance of this day for him and for the Russian military, but I don't have anything to preview or predict at this point in time from here about what they may or may not do," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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