War Stories

Putin Can’t Even Pretend He’s Winning in Ukraine

The Russian dictator had little to brag about in his annual Victory Day speech and announced no new escalation of the war, as some feared he might.

Putin in a dark overcoat surrounded by men in ceremonial military dress outside.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on Monday. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin observed Russia’s annual Victory Day celebrations in the Kremlin’s usual style, with thousands of troops parading through Red Square to honor the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945. But this time, contrary to widespread expectations, he had no other victories to celebrate.

Putin had hoped to pummel Ukraine into submission by this date, a full 75 days after he invaded his neighbor—once the Soviet Union’s second-largest republic—for daring to want to join the West. When that timetable didn’t work out, he figured he could absorb, perhaps formally annex, the Donbas region, just across the Russian border, where Moscow-backed militias have waged a separatist war for the past eight years.

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When Ukrainian troops resisted that offensive, some thought he would at least conquer the strategically important town of Mariupol on the Black Sea coast, which Russian troops have kept under siege for weeks. But they have not managed to overtake even that narrow target.

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In fact, in this largest, fiercest war in Europe since World War II, Putin’s soldiers have not yet captured and secured a single Ukrainian city.

As part of an intense propaganda campaign, which has shut down free Russian media and outlawed any public criticism to a degree not seen since Josef Stalin’s times, Putin has likened Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to Hitler’s Nazis (a preposterous claim not least because Zelensky, who is Jewish, lost relatives in the Nazis’ Holocaust). He did so again in his Victory Day speech on Monday, adding, as he has in previous speeches, that he had to invade Ukraine because the West was preparing to invade Russia.

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However, curiously, Putin did not mention Zelensky—or even Ukraine—by name, noting only that Russian troops were fighting for “the motherland,” so that “no one forgets the lessons of World War II.”

Some had expected that Putin would use the occasion to call for a mass mobilization of all draft-age men, thus escalating the fight from a “special military operation,” as he has called it, to an all-out war against not just Ukraine but its Western backers. But he made no such announcement. He made no false claims of battlefield victories, as some expected he might; but nor did he acknowledge mistakes or announce any shifts in strategy.

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It is unclear at this point what Putin’s strategic aim is in this war, which has killed as many as 15,000 Russian troops and disabled much of its armored vehicles while leveling many Ukrainian cities and turning 5 million Ukrainian citizens into refugees. But he said nothing in his Victory Day speech to dispel the widespread view that this is going to drag on, and dredge more deeply into violence, for a long time to come.

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In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up the deployment of artillery and other heavy weapons to the front lines of Donbas. But the West—especially the United States but also several other NATO countries, including Germany, which until now has refrained from getting involved in military missions—has more than matched the effort. Putin has long deemed this a war with the West, and he is right—though it was he, not U.S. President Joe Biden or anyone else, who made it so and who resolidified the Cold War division of Europe in a way that no one could have expected just a few months ago.

It is hard to assess the degree to which Russian citizens support Putin’s war. Given the massive arrests of peaceful protesters, many skeptics or outright opponents of the war are probably hesitant to confide their true views to pollsters. Some hoped that the military would turn against the war, and in fact many soldiers—sent into battle without any preparation or special training—have deserted, abandoning their tanks and weapons, which Ukrainians have captured and gone on to use.

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However, Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who has covered the military for years and is still in touch with many officers, says that the majority of them support the war, though many are critical of the way it’s being fought.

Biden and other Western leaders have imposed onerous sanctions on Russia’s economy and on many oligarchs, in hopes that they might turn against Putin. Yevgenia Albats, one of Russia’s most intrepid journalists, recently reported that many of the country’s financial leaders—whom she interviewed on background—do oppose the war and what it, Putin’s crackdown, and the sanctions are doing to Russia’s economy and society.

But that doesn’t mean they’re storming the Kremlin’s barricades. They are all too aware of the case of Oleg Tinkov, who was forced to sell his stake in Russia’s second-largest bank, with no chance of negotiating a price, after criticizing the invasion on his Instagram account. (Tinkov, who told his story to the New York Times, is now in hiding.)

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The West’s main aims in this war are, clearly, to help Ukraine’s population, keep its economy afloat, and make sure its army continues to stave off Russia’s offensive. However, these aims are widening, at some considerable risk. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated recently that the U.S. hoped to “weaken” Russia as a military power. The New York Times reported last week, on the basis of a shockingly indiscreet leak, that U.S. intelligence had helped Ukrainian soldiers find and target at least some of the dozen Russian generals killed on the battlefield.

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Biden reportedly was apoplectic about the leak, fearing that Putin could take that as a serious provocation. It’s likely Putin suspected the U.S. was behind the killings anyway; he may well believe the Ukrainians alone would be incapable of such work. Still, for American officials to acknowledge it, even in an unauthorized leak, can only intensify the tensions that make a widening escalation of the war more and more plausible.

Whatever happens in this war, it is now very clear, from Putin’s words on Monday to the actions on all sides all around us, that the Russian-Western alliance—which won World War II and which U.S., Russian, and European leaders jointly celebrated every May 9 until not so long ago—is kaput.

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