Could Russia’s Victory Day be a milestone for the war in Ukraine?

Victory Day on May 9 is a symbol of national pride for Russians, much as Independence Day on the Fourth of July is for Americans. But given the current brutal and devastating war Russia has waged on Ukraine, some experts fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin could capitalize on the holiday to declare some sort of victory. They are also concerned he may be planning an even more brutal assault in order to achieve that by May 9. To explain the significance of Victory Day and the impact it could have on the war in Ukraine, Julian G. Waller, associate research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va., spoke to Yahoo News.

Video transcript

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JULIAN G. WALLER: Victory Day is probably the most important secular holiday in Russia. It commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.

- And what a welcome the Red Army received.

JULIAN G. WALLER: It's holiday of tremendous and important symbolic significance, particularly. Both at the level of the state, at the level of civilizational striving, but also at individual level, because everyone has grandparents and great grandparents who fought, many who died, over the course of World War II. Every year, there is a triumphal military procession in Red Square in Moscow, the capital of the country.

So traditionally, this was a sort of celebration in which ICBMs are going to be rolled across, massive tank groupings, lots of soldiers marching in lockstep. Victory Day has been increasingly re-emphasized over the course of the Putin regime since taking power. Given the current tensions, of course, in the collective West, and the United States, and elsewhere, it is going to be read a lot more as a threat.

The stakes are very high for Vladimir Putin, for the Russian regime overall in regards to the course of this war, the fact that it has so far failed and its political and territorial goals. But again, the war is in its early stages. Vladimir Putin, we know very well that he does not believe anyone can run Russia as well as he runs Russia.

Given the increasing personalization of power around Putin, this war is very, very critical. Because at the end of the day, if the war fails, if the state fails, who's tied to the state?

At the operational level, Victory Day is unlikely to be a major turning point in the war, per se, because simply speaking, the military reality on the ground is not necessarily going to correspond with an arbitrary calendar date. That being said, many people have made the case that because of the symbolic resonance of the day, the fact that it's very strongly associated with the Russian armed forces, that the general staff, the Russian regime itself is trying as hard as it can to use Victory Day in some way associated with the war, related to the war-- a lot of people talk about it as kind of declaring victory, as some sort of mission accomplished kind of moment.

That's probably a little overemphasized-- not that they're not going to try to make a claim. There's going to be victory claims of some sort. And they're certainly going to be related to the Russo-Ukrainian war that's ongoing right now. And the new phase in the Donbass is very likely going to filter in.

What that doesn't mean is that anything will change on the ground, necessarily. It just might push forward Russian efforts to try to get their pound of flesh, given that the Battle of Kyiv has gone so poorly, given that there has been an entire reorientation towards the Donbass theater, and that that offensive is starting now, more or less. It is certainly plausible that there is significant pressures to show achievements-- show specifically geographically, territorial achievements. We have captured this or that territory in Ukraine by this point. We have liberated this or that people.

Everything can always get worse. That's certainly the case. And the Russians have actually shown relative constraint in the use of some of their more major military arsenal. And it might not look very restrained, given the terrible images coming out of places like Bucha, or the siege of Kharkiv, or the destruction of Mariupol, or something like that-- these are terrible things. We've not seen the use of tactical nuclear weapons, biological or chemical weapons.

All of these things are possible even at just the conventional stage. Thermobaric weapons could be deployed regularly. Indiscriminate rocket fire could be commonplace and targeted on civilians, in particular.

Unfortunately, it is likely to continue for some time. We are two months in. It's going to get worse. And we have to keep that in mind-- that it's going to be difficult to make predictions on how long the war will last, in what ways it will evolve.

If the Donbass war goes modestly well for the Russians, if they're able to make a connection between the captured territory in the South with captured territory in the Donbass, if that can be consolidated, there is a universe in which no more escalation is necessary-- that a weaker, more embarrassing war goal will be achieved. Regardless of whether Victory Day is used as a major symbolic distinguisher, it is very likely that over the course of May, parts of the Russian military are going to have to go into refit mode to replenish supplies, to reorganize, to learn best practices, given the fact that things have not gone very well on their own side.

It's possible that negotiations will kick off after the conclusion of Victory Day, after the conclusion of the offensive, however it ends-- whether it ends before or after May 9. And we might get some hope. It might be false hope. We should be careful on that. But we might get some hope that at least there's a sense of back to the table while the armies recuperate for the next round.

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