But more than two months later, the war is still far from what Russia originally imagined. May 9, then, might offer Putin the occasion to declare a symbolic “victory” over Ukraine – a grand demonstration of patriotic euphoria aimed at bolstering his manipulated and sanctions-weary audience.
The date falls on the day that Nazi Germany surrendered to Soviet forces (the day after its surrender to the Western Allies, which is why the United Kingdom, the United States and their allies celebrated the anniversary of victory on May 8).
Moscow initially partnered with Nazi Berlin to divide Eastern Europe between two totalitarian regimes. But after that partnership ended with the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, the Soviet human contribution to Germany’s defeat – backed by massive shipments of food aid and military equipment from the UK, US and Canada – was critical.
What is the significance of May 9 for Putin?
But with no friendly tools available to attract other countries, to hold an empire or to restore it, Russia needs a strong army. May 9 was designed to show off the mobilization of the Fatherland, to intimidate the opposition and appease the dictator of the time (over the years, all the general secretaries of the Communist Party similarly stood at the Mausoleum of Lenin on Red Square recognizing the military might of Russia contented as it led past and flew over it).
Ukraine is very personal to Putin (but fortunately, for the future of Ukraine, it is even more personal to Ukrainians). Its “delusion” is a betrayal, and its very existence is a historical aberration in the eyes of the Russian president. Something had to be done about Ukraine’s Western ambitions, and with Russian-style diplomacy (read: coercion) failing, Putin felt compelled to resort to more forceful tactics to “get it right.”
What he did not realize (though most Western analysts were unfair) was the extent of fundamental corruption and incompetence that Russia’s modern, professional fighting force had become.
Ukraine’s heroic resistance deserves all the credit. But they could not achieve this without the unintended help of the Russian army. In the meantime, such is the vertical nature of Russia’s political structures, and there is certainly little accurate information circulating among the rest of Putin’s elites about the current state of affairs.
What could this mean for the course of the war?
Both sides are effectively maneuvering to get a better position at the negotiating table when that time finally comes. Militarily, the war may reach a stalemate in the coming weeks, as neither side has the strength to completely change the course of the war and achieve a decisive victory over the other.
What does Putin’s Ukraine strategy look like?
Russia’s tactics may have changed, but its strategy – that is, its overall goal – has not. This goal is to ensure that Ukraine is no longer an independent country that can make its own choice against Europe and the West.
The good news is that the goal can be achieved. The subjugation of Ukraine – physically or politically – is forever out of Russia’s reach now. Russia has not done well enough on the battlefield or in the political arena to make it happen. The bad news is that Russia does not know this yet, and therefore will continue to send its own men, and many Ukrainians as well, to their deaths.
If sanctions are maintained, Europe can continue to distance itself from Russian energy, and if foreign investors continue to be deterred, the Kremlin will run out of money later in the year — which in turn could force an eventual change in policy. But not by May 9. None of these changes will be visible by that time – in the “progress” of the war or in the eyes of the common people of Russia.
So May 9th will be a show of strength as ever. But it will be empty. Exactly, I suppose, like the feeling in Putin’s belly.