[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Ukraine and the world are bracing for a possible “big announcement” when Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his annual speech Monday to mark Russia’s 77th “Victory Day,” commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
But with the battle to take Ukraine’s Donbas region going far slower than expected, speculation has arisen that Putin could undertake any number of scenarios May 9th, including far more aggressive military action.
Putin Likely to Link WWII to the Ukraine Invasion
For Russia, “May 9th is a combination of Memorial Day and July 4th and Thanksgiving rolled into one,” Rebecca Grant, National Security Analyst with IRIS Independent Research, tells PoliticalIQ. “That World War II victory is the glue that holds together Russian society, which has multiple religions and ethnicities in this really big country.”
And Putin himself, she says, sees “winning World War II and putting Yuri Gagarin in space as the two best things that Russia has ever done.”
Victory Day celebrations have mushroomed through the two decades of Putin’s regime. Hundreds of thousands of Russians gather to watch military parades, complete with tanks and missiles. Billboards and buses are decorated with posters of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union to victory, and tens of millions of citizens march in Moscow, carrying portraits of relatives who died in World War II.
And so to keep up with this level of pageantry, according to Grant, Putin will likely make a bombastic display to suggest, if not that Russia’s winning the war, then at least that the “struggle” is worth continuing to fight for.
Putin Could Extend Victory Day Into Eastern Ukraine
“This is just ghastly,” says Grant, “but Putin claims parts of Ukraine have not been able to celebrate liberation from the Nazis in a way they should.”
And he may be planning to use Mariupol as “the center of celebrations,” according to Oleksiy Arestovych, advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
This comes as thousands of Ukrainians remain scattered throughout the ravaged city, and its last defenders hold out in the underground bunker of the Azovstal steel plant while Russia bombards them with missiles.
“They may put together a military parade,” says Grant. “It would be like a symbolic march of Russian forces through this decimated region of Mariupol in this horrible attempt to link this to World War II.”
There may also be military marches in the Donbas, she says, despite the disappointing lack of progress there. Again, says Grant, “Putin’s going to try to link it to World War II: ‘keep up the struggle.’ That’s going to help him domestically, and he needs that morale boost for his failing forces in Ukraine.”
Russian Troop Shortage May Trigger Declaration of War
As for “failing forces,” since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, it’s lost an estimated 20% to 25% of its “entire attacking force.”
“Russia’s running out of troops,” says retired U.S. Navy Captain Chuck Nash.
“They just did the Spring conscription effort where they draft people in for a year’s worth of service in the military,” but since Putin has only declared the Ukrainian invasion a “special operation,” Nash explains, under Russian law, he can’t send those conscripts into battle until they’ve had several months of training.
“So, how can he get around that Russian law that says he can’t use troops? He can declare war and mobilization,” says Nash. And May 9th could very well be the day he would do it.
What a Declaration of War Would Mean
Russia’s mobilization law can be used, in part, “in cases of aggression against the Russian Federation or a direct threat of aggression.” It would allow the government not just to assemble troops but to also put the country’s economy on a war footing.
“If he does, all bets are off the table,” says Nash. “Now he can use those conscripts, let them fertilize the Ukrainian fields.”
Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of any war declarations as “nonsense.” Those dismissals were quickly dismissed in the U.S.
“There’s no rule of law in Russia. Putin just basically does what he wants,” Steve Hall, former CIA Chief of Russia Operations, said on CNN Wednesday. “It’s possible he could do something like that during this upcoming holiday. You know, we’ll see.”
Escalation Into Moldova?
“The other thing [Putin’s] been thinking about is this whole thing with Transnistria and Moldova,” says Nash. “He could say that he’s going to do all that, and that’s if he declares war and mobilizes.”
Russian officials had spoken in recent weeks of escalating their offensive into Transnistria, a breakaway republic recognized internationally as part of Moldova, but it’s in question right now whether Russian troops aren’t already spread too thin in Ukraine to make this happen.
Eugen Caras, Moldovan Ambassador to the U.S., told CNN Tuesday, “On our assessment, there is no imminent threat of military actions targeting Moldova. But of course, we saw last week some provocations in Transnistria, some explosions, and we are concerned. We are worried, and we have all the contingency planning.”
In fact, EU Council President Charles Michel said Wednesday the European Union is already looking for ways to ramp up military support to Moldova, which has EU Civil Protection while the organization considers its petition for full membership.
“Missile Terrorism” Across Ukraine?
On Wednesday night, Russia bombarded railroad stations and other supply-line targets, in what Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba referred to as Russia “resorting to the missile terrorism tactics in order to spread fear across Ukraine.”
While the assault appeared aimed at cutting off the latest supply of weapons from NATO countries, could it be a precursor to a Victory Day bombardment?
“I think overall the missiles are going up because of the intensity of the fighting in the East right now,” says Grant. “But is Ukraine preparing for more intense air and missile strikes on May 9th? Probably. There are just so many possibilities of what Putin may or may not do.”
Would Putin Resort to Nukes?
Rhetoric by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has evolved over just a few weeks. He began the month of April by saying Russian forces would use “conventional weapons only,” but he ended the month with more ambiguous—and more ominous—wording, saying Moscow was striving to prevent nuclear war at all costs. Then he added, “The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.”
Senior U.S. Defense officials dismiss the threat, despite this change in rhetoric. And President Biden made a point last week of scolding Russia, saying, “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons.”
Nash believes the nuclear rhetoric is part of Putin’s desire to break apart NATO. “Do I think he would use nukes? No. Do I think that would scare the Europeans into thinking he might? Yeah,” he says.
Victory Day Celebrations Could Expose Russia’s Losses
Inside Moscow, the annual Victory Day military parade is set for Monday in Red Square. However, it’s expected to be reduced by as much at 35% over previous years.