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 like Independence Day on July 4 is for Americans. The Russian national holiday celebrates the historical victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II.
This year, the 77th anniversary of Victory Day comes amid a brutal and devastating war Russia is waging in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated reason for the “special military operation” in Ukraine — the false claim that he wants to “de-Nazify” Russia’s neighbor — deliberately invokes World War II history.
It’s also a war the Kremlin may not have thought would be as difficult as the ongoing slog it has become. Some experts and sources, believing Putin will want to capitalize on the upcoming holiday to end the war by declaring victory in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that borders Russia, fear Russia will unleash an even more brutal assault on Ukraine in the days leading up to May 9.
To help 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. (Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Yahoo News: Why is May 9, Victory Day, significant for Russia?
Julian G. Waller: Victory Day is probably the most important secular holiday in Russia, and formerly across the whole of the Soviet Union and many former republics that came from the USSR. It commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. It was, at the time, foundational to the legitimacy of the Soviet state and to the identity of the vast majority of Soviet citizens who experienced that extermination war, which killed between 20 and 26 million civilians and soldiers in the Soviet Union alone.
It’s a holiday of tremendous and important symbolic significance, particularly, both at the level of the state, at the level of civilizational striving, but also at the individual level, because everyone has grandparents and great-grandparents who fought, many who died over the course of World War II.
Victory Day has been increasingly reemphasized over the course of the Putin regime, since taking power. Every year, there is a triumphal military procession in Red Square and in Moscow, the capital of the country. And this triumphal procession is very much so alike with the Soviet past of how they also celebrated Victory Day on May 9. So, traditionally this was a sort of celebration in which ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] are going to be rolled across, massive tank groupings, lots of soldiers marching in lockstep. Given the current tensions, of course, in the collective West, in the United States and elsewhere, it is going to be read a lot more as a threat.
Will May 9 have any impact on the war in Ukraine?
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. 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 [Russia] 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 Donbas 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 Donbas, and that offensive is starting now, more or less. It is certainly plausible that there is significant pressure to show achievements, specific geographic, territorial achievements, like “We have captured this or that territory in Ukraine by this point. We have liberated this or that people.”
That doesn’t mean that the war’s going to stop. I think that’s highly unlikely.
Could the war in Ukraine get even more violent, especially leading up to May 9?
Everything can always get worse, that’s certainly the case. That being said, despite the very notable atrocities and the major hard-hitting actions on the part of the Russians, civilian casualties are quite high, military casualties also very high. This is a bloody affair, war always is, and urban warfare is terrible.
The Russians have actually shown relative constraint in the use of some of their more major military arsenal. I mean that very specifically that Russian tactics have not been particularly nuanced. However, they have been more nuanced than they were in Syria, for example. Kyiv was not carpet-bombed, to take one example; we have not seen the use of tactical nuclear weapons, biological, 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. There are absolutely exceptions to this, but broadly speaking, the Russians have not done that.
Why is that? In part, because the original Russian goal was to not destroy Ukraine, it was to engage in regime change, to take back the mother of all Russian cities of Kyiv, of protecting the population from fascists, things like that. If that’s your political goal, and all wars are fought for political reasons, then you want to minimize how much it’s going to cost to rebuild, and you also want to engender favorability among a population. Has that turned out particularly well for them? No, not really.
It should also be emphasized that there has been restraint 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. These are terrible things. However, there has been relative restraint. Russia’s a nuclear superpower, Russia has lots of things it can do, and it is not doing all those things.
Right now, there’s no evidence or seeming necessity, again coming from the position of a Western analyst on the outside and not being privy to these sorts of decisions, it seems unnecessary that a major escalation, in terms of either the qualitative aspect of the war or the deep brutality and grinding destructiveness of the war, will increase in massive intensity.
Where does the war in Ukraine go from here?
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 in its political and territorial goals, but again, the war is in its early stages. 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, and in what ways it will evolve.
If the Donbas 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 Donbas if that can be consolidated, there’s a universe in which no more escalation is necessary, that their 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, that 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. That does mean that something like a pause along part of the strategic theater of operations is likely going to take place. It would be strange if it did not.
They’re going to be potentially very important because at this point that pause will allow the Ukrainians to resupply. It will allow them to refit, bring more soldiers into key areas of wherever the front ends up being. And in the meantime, one of the problems for the Russian side is that every day that they don’t achieve whatever political objective they’ve decided they now have is another day where the United States and other NATO allies are supplying more matériel, more financial support, more needed equipment [to Ukraine]. And every day further is another day for Congress or national parliaments to get together and decide “we really want to make even more of a stamp.”
And that causes problems if the Russian political designs extend to beyond the immediate territorial stretch of the Donbas or of southern Ukraine.
Yes, the next several weeks are going to be potentially quite bloody, quite decisive, at least in the short, immediate dissection of the war. But then there will be a lull, at least in some stretches, simply by dint of necessity. Then we can certainly look forward to a more interesting time later on in the summer and whether or not negotiations go anywhere, it remains to be seen. 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 9th. And we might get some hope. It might be false hope, 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.