While the Russian military is still struggling, Western officials and Ukraine’s traumatized residents are looking with increasing concern to Russia’s Victory Day on May 9 – a celebration of Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany – with President Vladimir V. Putin as the grandiose stage could intensify attacks and mobilize its citizenry for all-out war.
While Russia has inflicted death and destruction on Ukraine over the past 10 weeks and made some headway in the east and south, strong Ukrainian resistance, western-supplied heavy weaponry and the incompetence of the Russian military have denied Mr Putin the quick victory he wanted originally envisaged, including the initial goal of beheading the government in Kyiv.
However, now that Russia is on the verge of a European Union oil embargo and Victory Day is just five days away, Mr Putin may see the need to rock the West with a new escalation. There are growing concerns that Mr Putin will use the event, where he traditionally leads a parade and delivers a militaristic speech, to lash out at Russia’s perceived enemies and widen the scope of the conflict.
In a sign of this concern, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace last week predicted that Mr Putin would seize the opportunity to reframe what the Russian leader has described as a “special military operation” into a war and to call for a mass mobilization of the Russian People.
Such a declaration would pose a new challenge for war-torn Ukraine, as well as for Washington and its NATO allies as they seek to counter Russian aggression without engaging directly in the conflict. However, the Kremlin on Wednesday denied that Mr Putin would declare war on May 9, calling it “nonsense”.
Yet Russia’s hierarchy has also denied for months that it had intended to invade Ukraine, only to do just that on February 24. So the conjectures about Putin’s intention on Victory Day are becoming more and more acute.
“It’s a question everyone is asking,” Valery Dzutsati, visiting professor at the Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas, said Wednesday, adding, “The short answer is: no one knows what will be.” happen on May 9th.”
Professor Dzutsati said that declaring mass mobilization or all-out war could prove deeply unpopular among Russians. He predicted Mr Putin would choose “the safest option” and point to territory Russia has already seized in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to declare a “preliminary victory”.
Preparations for May 9 are in full swing in Russia as the country will mark the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s victory over the Nazis while waging another war against what Putin falsely claimed is the modern day Nazis who rule Ukraine .
On Wednesday, Russian state media reported that fighter jets and helicopters were practicing flying in formations over Moscow’s Red Square in a show of military might that included eight MiG-29 jets flying in the shape of the letter “Z,” which goes to has become a ubiquitous symbol of Russian nationalism and support for the war.
Other fighter jets sped over Moscow while leaving white, blue and red trails – the colors of the Russian flag.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said Wednesday that military parades will be held in 28 Russian cities on May 9 and will be attended by about 65,000 soldiers and more than 460 aircraft.
Ukraine warned that Russia also plans to hold events in occupied Ukrainian cities on May 9, including the devastated southern port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials said more than 20,000 civilians were killed and those who remained struggled to survive without adequate food and heat and water.
Defense Intelligence of Ukraine said the Russians were clearing dead bodies and debris from the central streets of Mariupol to make the city presentable as a “center of celebrations.”
Ukrainian civilians, who have been ravaged by weeks of Russian attacks, are increasingly concerned that Russia may use Victory Day to subject them to even deadlier attacks.
In the western city of Lviv, which lost power on Wednesday after Russian missiles hit power plants, Yurji Horal, 43, a head of a government office, said he plans to stay with his wife and young children to visit relatives in a village 40 miles away from escaping what he feared could be an escalation of the May 9 war.
“I’m worried about her — and about myself,” he said. “A lot of people I know talk about it.”
In recent years, Mr Putin has used May 9 – a near-holy holiday for Russians as 27 million Soviets died in World War II – to mobilize the nation to the possibility of a new battle to come.
Addressing the nation from his podium in Red Square on May 9 last year, he warned that Russia’s enemies were once again deploying “much of Nazi ideology.”
Now, with Russian state media portraying the struggle in Ukraine as an unfinished business of World War II, it seems almost certain that Mr Putin will use his May 9 speech to invoke the heroism of Soviet soldiers to try to defeat the Russians to inspire new victims.
But a mass mobilization – possibly combined with military service and a ban on Russian men of military age leaving the country – could bring the reality of war to a much larger segment of Russian society and create unrest.
For many Russians, the “special military operation” in Ukraine still feels like a distant conflict. Independent pollster Levada found last month that 39 percent of Russians pay little to no attention to it.
“If you see it on TV, it’s one thing,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “If you get a decision from the registration office, it’s a different one. There would likely be some difficulty for leadership to make such a decision.”
Mr Kortunov predicted that fighting in eastern Ukraine would eventually grind to a halt, at which point Russia and Ukraine could negotiate a deal – or rearm and regroup for a new phase of the war.
He noted that while some senior Russian officials and state television commentators have called for the destruction of Ukraine, Mr Putin has been vague about his war goals lately, at least in public comment.
Mr Kortunov said Mr Putin could still declare the mission accomplished once Russia has captured most of the Donbass region. Russia has significantly increased its control over this region since the war began, but Ukraine still holds several important cities and towns.
“If everything ends with the Donbass, there would probably be a way to explain that this was always the plan,” Mr. Kortunov said. “Putin left this option open.”
With no solution to the conflict in sight, the European Union took a major step on Wednesday to weaken Putin’s ability to finance the war by proposing a total embargo on Russian oil. The measure, which is expected to receive final approval in a few days, would ban imports of Russian crude oil to almost all of the European Union for the next six months and ban refined oil products by the end of the year.
“Let’s be clear that it won’t be easy,” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where the announcement was met with applause. “Some member states are heavily dependent on Russian oil. But we just have to work at it.”
The European Union on Wednesday also pledged additional military support to Moldova, a former Soviet republic on Ukraine’s southwestern border that Western officials say could be used by Russia as a launch pad for further attacks.
Security fears in Moldova mounted last week when mysterious explosions rocked Transnistria, a Kremlin-backed separatist region of the country where Russia has stationed troops since 1992.
Although European officials said they would “significantly increase” military support to Moldova by supplying additional military equipment and tools to counter disinformation and cyberattacks, they gave no details.
Reporting was contributed by Jane Araf, Neil MacFarquhar, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk.