Putin’s choices filled with peril on eve of Victory Day parade

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/ObQcZaYUQ4rOlx8z1fFkaw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3NjtjZj13ZWJw/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/uQWXQ_TEHMtviTRoT5CA4w–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/1f28702f11803de95d3fa6d1b498c9d8&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

On the brink of its May 9 Victory Day celebrations, Russia looks very far from triumph in its war in Ukraine. And all of its options going forward are fraught with danger.

After a disastrous assault on Kyiv, Russia is engaged in an attempt to take territory in Ukraine’s east, as its military nears exhaustion and sanctions continue to escalate.

“With the current force that they have, the push that they’re attempting now is all that they have left,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, former director for Russia on the US national security council and senior analyst at the CNA thinktank.

“Militaries just don’t recover that quickly from such a devastating loss. And given how effective the Ukrainians have been with our support, I just don’t think they’re going to be able to achieve their objectives within the coming weeks. And the coming weeks are going to be the telltale of where this is going.”

Facing setbacks, officials have suggested that Vladimir Putin may use the May 9 holiday to repackage the war in Ukraine. Dramatic options include escalation through a formal declaration of war or general mobilisation – or de-escalating by proclaiming victory.

Alternatively, Putin could offer up a “sandwich”, as one analyst put it, that praises the Russian army’s “victory” while preparing the population for a grinding and painful conflict as status quo.

Ukrainian officials in particular have warned that Putin is planning to announce a mass mobilisation, or even to declare war against Ukraine, calling up personnel and resources that were untapped under Russia’s so-called “special operation” that began on 24 February.

“Russia has already moved to covert mobilisation and is preparing to announce open mobilisation in the near future,” said Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, in an interview this week with the Ukrainian news outlet New Times. “I’m quite curious: how will they explain this to their own people?”

Russian self-propelled artillery vehicles roll during a dress rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow.
Russian self-propelled artillery vehicles roll during a dress rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The Kremlin has denied it is planning a mobilisation, although some Russians have leaked call-up papers and state orders relating to a potential mobilisation online. A number of enlistment offices have been targeted in arson attacks since March, including one in remote Nizhnevartovsk last week as rumours of a coming mobilisation grew.

But a formal mobilisation, which could see tens of thousands of reservists pulled from their jobs, and borders closed to fighting-age men, is something that Russia has never managed before. It would be highly disruptive to the economy and would further raise the stakes in a war where Russia has already disappointed on the battlefield.

“Proclaiming mobilisation will make this war highly unpopular,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military expert. He also questioned whether it would be “technically possible” – “What can you do with the mobilised people? Which officers and military units can deal with them?”

“This is no magic pill for them, it’s not a get-out-of-jail free card for Putin,” Edmonds said, noting that by the time new troops were brought up, the “Russians could be falling apart”.

Fearing defeat, Russia may threaten to raise the stakes even further. Top propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov showed a simulation of a nuclear strike against the UK on national television this week. “Just one launch, Boris, and England is gone,” he said. “Once and for all. Why play with us?”

Putin may also hint at the potential for nuclear conflict as he stands before the heavy weaponry, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, that he returned to the Red Square parade in 2008.

“He also knows that we’re going to be listening to him, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some nuclear rhetoric in there as well,” said the CNA’s Edmonds.

He said he remained sceptical that Russia could use a tactical nuclear weapon in the conflict, but like others noted that the Kremlin has become more unpredictable. “If Putin sees this as becoming existential, then all bets are off the table.”

Seeing the limited potential for victory, Putin could also seek to de-escalate the conflict. Standing before his military and the country on Monday, Putin could announce that Russia has achieved its major war aims in Ukraine by allegedly destroying Ukrainian military capacity, and by taking near control of several mid-sized cities such as Mariupol and Kherson.

But that may also be a tough sell, as the Ukrainian military could try to retake lost ground, leading to further losses even if Russia stakes a defensive position.

Eight jet fighters with smoke trails; ornate clock tower to left of picture
Jet fighters, forming the symbol Z in support of Russian military action in Ukraine, fly over Red Square in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

A senior Russian official last week in Kherson said that Russia had returned “forever,” making the idea of a political settlement that would return control of its territory to Ukraine even more remote.

And as Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, noted, the Kremlin’s vague and changing war aims have meant that many people in Russia may be left unsatisfied with whatever Putin eventually claims as victory.

“That’s probably the strongest reason why many people say that the Kremlin is in a corner now, that they’re stuck, because they’re inevitably going to disappoint some groups with whatever they claim as a victory in the broader term,” he said.

Expectations of a big announcement on 9 May, he said, may speak more to the frustration among those outside the Kremlin than to the fact that anything meaningful will be announced. “They want a sense of certainty, they want a new chapter in this conflict,” he said.

While the Kremlin may feel political and economic pressure to end the war, a grinding conflict may be better than admitting defeat.

“I assume he will use the 9th of May to somehow address the victory … something a lot of sociologists tell us is that Russians want this to be over but in a good way,” said Anton Barbashin, the editorial director at Riddle Russia and a political analyst.

“But I would expect that he also needs to introduce some new challenges as well. It needs to be a sandwich, it can’t be just victory. There is so much going on, and by now Putin is aware of the economic risks and problems that are going to arise quite soon. So you probably need to propose a strong vision of how Russia is challenged.”

That is already visible in state media reports that explain Russia is at war with Nato rather than just with Ukraine in order to justify some of the military’s recent defeats.

The Kremlin is also facing an urgent ideological challenge, Barbashin noted, as the war increasingly begins to affect ordinary Russians who may not have a clear idea of why Russia decided that it would invade Ukraine in the first place.

“The more I think of it, the more astonishing it is that this war has shown that Russia has no ideology whatsoever,” he said.

“They’re trying to come up with something new but none of it actually makes sense. Russians do not understand what the hell Russia is doing there.”

Published by anthonyhayble

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