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Analysis'There were no concrete gains to point to'

‘Very bad options’: Putin’s muted Victory Day rally shows he has little to celebrate

As Mariupol holds out and Ukraine prepares for a counterattack, signs of Russia’s problems are difficult to ignore

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

May 9 was supposed to be the next milestone in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many observers expected Russian troops to escalate their attacks in an attempt to blast their way to some sort of battlefield achievement before the annual Victory Day parade, as a gift to Vladimir Putin. Since it was clear that major prizes like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa are beyond Russia’s reach — likely for good — Mariupol was the logical target.

But even that battered city has proven too tall a task for Russia. Ukrainian forces in the city’s Azovstal steel plant somehow remain in the fight, and Russian troops surrounding the complex have opted not to risk heavy casualties trying to storm it.

The other expectation for the Victory Day celebration in Moscow’s Red Square was that Putin would make a major announcement about the war in Ukraine. Some anticipated a declaration that the country was at war, opening the door for a general call-up of reservists. Others expected Russia’s leader to declare victory and give himself a way out of an operation that has been bungled from the start.

That didn’t happen either. (It must be emphasized that no Russian officials promised any major announcements on Victory Day — only outside observers.)

Even so, it was hard to shake the feeling that the celebration was muted.

Russian servicemen march on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. – Russia celebrates the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

“When May 9 came, it was quite clear that things were not as usual,” said Johan Norberg, senior military analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and a leading expert on the Russian Army.

One inescapable indication that something was off was the cancellation of the parade’s planned Russian Air Force flyover, said Norberg. The Kremlin blamed supposedly inclement weather, but anyone watching footage of the parade could see that the sun was glinting off Putin’s bald head as he waved to the thousands of soldiers lined up in tight rows.

The most likely explanation for the planes’ absence from the parade in Moscow — and those across the country — is that Russia’s battered air force had few pilots or aircraft to spare, and the scaled-down display would have embarrassed Moscow.

There was another resounding absence at the parade. Military Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, rumored to have been wounded in Ukraine on May 1, was nowhere to be seen.

Instead of announcing a new phase in the war in his address, Putin justified the invasion, blaming Ukraine and the West for “creating unacceptable threats immediately near our borders.”

He cast the conflict as inevitable, saying NATO had amped up the threat to Russia by providing Kyiv with new weapons as it drew up plans to invade Russian-held areas of the Donbas region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Red Square after the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. – Russia celebrates the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

“You are fighting for the motherland, so that no one will forget the lessons of World War II and there will be no place in the world for hangmen, executioners and the Nazis,” Putin told the assembled troops.

Putin didn’t have much choice but to give a somber address, said Norberg. “There were no concrete gains to point to,” he said.

“Other than the memories of the victory of the Second World War, he didn’t have a lot to celebrate,” noted Peter Zwack, US defense attaché to Russia from 2012 to 2014. “He celebrated that victory and he celebrated the veterans, and as you know, there’s not a lot of veterans left.”

“It was more inward-looking,” he continued. “Mother Russia, a call to arms against the existential threat, Ukraine as the bridgehead for the US and NATO aggression.”

Russia was marking the 77th anniversary of its defeat of Nazi Germany with parades and marches, including the main celebration in Red Square, featuring some 11,000 troops and more than 130 military vehicles.

In this handout photo taken from video released by the Donetsk People’s Republic Interior Ministry Press Service, on May 4, 2022, smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine. (Donetsk People’s Republic Interior Ministry Press Service via AP)

Putin told the gathered troops that Russian forces in Ukraine were continuing the battle against Nazism, but that it was important “to do everything so that the horror of a global war does not happen again.”

“All this is taking place as the Russian regime, with its bodyguard of lies, are trying to maneuver through a lot of bad news, and using Victory Day as a way to energize and mobilize their population,” argued Zwack.

Bad options

Despite the Russian attempt to create a show of force, it is hard to see where Russian successes would come in Ukraine.

“Russia has very bad options,” said Norberg.

A wounded servicemen of Ukrainian Military Forces looks on after the battle with Russian troops and Russia-backed separatists in Luhansk region on March 8, 2022 (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)

After embarking on a concerted push to take Ukraine’s capital city, Russia withdrew its forces from Kyiv’s suburbs in early April. Since then, Moscow’s focus has been on the Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, portions of which it captured in 2014.

But a conquest is unlikely to happen.

“It will be hard for them to take all of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, unless they want to augment their forces,” said Norberg.

Russia officially had some 900,000 active duty personnel on the eve of the invasion, but a significant portion of those soldiers might only exist on paper. Moreover, thousands have been killed in the 77 days of war, and Russian conscripts don’t seem eager to fight.

The major remaining reservoir of troops is Russia’s 2-million-strong reserve force, but mobilization creates new problems for Putin.

Russian military vehicles move on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)

“Mobilization makes military sense, but politically it is very dangerous,” said Norberg. “The war will be felt deeply throughout the country.”

And of course, there is the not-insignificant problem of the Ukrainian armed forces. Though few experts outside of Ukraine gave them much of a chance, Ukrainian soldiers have proven skilled, resourceful, and most of all, determined.

As Western allies increasingly understand Ukraine can actually win the war, they are sending more advanced weapons into the country. Within weeks, Ukrainian officials believe, they will be ready for a general counteroffensive.

A screen shows Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a speech as servicemen line up on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. – Russia celebrates the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

In the meantime, Ukraine is making local attacks against Russian forces on its territory.

“On Russian YouTube, I am seeing more and more comments about Ukrainian counteroffensives,” Norberg explained.

And Kyiv is not about to stop attacking until it has pushed Russian forces at least to the lines it held on February 23, the day before the invasion. But Putin is not about to fold either.

“This is a regime that doesn’t know how to stop,” said Zwack.

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