Russia to celebrate Victory Day without a victory in Ukraine
All eyes are on Moscow to see what Putin might announce as his next move
In the shadow of the Kremlin, in the middle of a war, Russia's getting ready for a parade — a Victory Day celebration, but without a victory in Ukraine to celebrate.
Photos and video show thousands of soldiers, pulled back from fighting in the muddy fields of Ukraine, march smartly with polished rifles and white gloves in this weekend's rehearsals. Tanks and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads chug across Moscow's Red Square. Supersonic fighter jets and strategic bombers fly in formation overhead.
There's even an ominous appearance by Moscow's so-called "doomsday" plane planned. The high-tech command centre and getaway vehicle designed to spirit off Russia's top brass in the event of a nuclear war.
Held almost every year since 1945, the May 9 parade marks the Soviet Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany in what's known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War.
All eyes on Putin
This year especially, it has come to symbolize much more. It's now "a cornerstone of the narrative of Russia's greatness, heroism and sacrifice," said Kataryna Wolczuk, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at London's Chatham House.
But if it's meant as a show of power for Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed at adversaries in Ukraine and the West, the question is: What will he do?
Some expect a formal declaration of war, expanding what Russia has so far called a 'special operation' and leading to a national mobilization to send many more soldiers. Others predict Putin might resort to nuclear sabre-rattling with overt threats to use Russia's arsenal if pushed too far.
Like many others, Putin's former speechwriter is waiting for a dramatic announcement.
"Everyone is expecting something to happen [on 9 May], both the enemies of Putin and his supporters," said Abbas Gallyamov, who is now a political consultant with the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told BBC News.
"These expectations created a vacuum that needs to be filled. If it's not, Putin will lose politically."
What Russians are being told
Putin's domestic audience is being told Russia's invasion of Ukraine, now in its third month, is another kind of "Great Patriotic War," in terms of "liberating Europe and standing up to evil of fascism in Ukraine," said Wolczuk.
The political message is working on many Russians, says Ian Garner, the author of an upcoming book on the mythology around the battle for Stalingrad in the Second World War and an expert in Russian propaganda.
As he monitors Russian state broadcasts and social media from Kingston, Ont., he sees domestic opinion "hardening" in the past few weeks. Loud, pro-war voices are becoming increasing "rabid and fervent" to see Ukraine collapse and are advocating erasing the country completely, while censorship is silencing opposing views, Garner said.
Still, even with that apparent public support for the invasion — even as Red Square echoes with upbeat marching bands and patriotic shouts of "hurrah" from soldiers practicing for tomorrow's parade — Putin has a serious problem.
His military isn't delivering the kind of quick, decisive win expected of a self-proclaimed superpower, even after a mid-war reset that saw Moscow abandon its unsuccessful attack on Kyiv and reposition troops to concentrate on eastern and southern regions considered easier to conquer.
"It is a spectacular failure of performance on the part of the Russian military," said D. Michael Day, a retired lieutenant-general with the Canadian Armed Forces who has been watching this conflict closely.
Ukraine's fierce defence
Day, a former commander of the elite special operations force, Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), estimates that Russia has thrown about two-thirds of its land forces into this invasion, including its best units. But he says it has been stymied by well-documented shortcomings: a shortage of well-trained troops and functioning equipment, a lack of co-ordination among air and ground forces and poorly designed, insufficient supply lines. A surprisingly high number of its generals and other commanders have been killed.
Ukrainian forces have put up a "fierce opposition, certainly unexpected by the Russians," he said. He credits part of that to the years of training Ukrainian soldiers received from Canada and other NATO partners.
As a result, "the Russians have reverted to, quite frankly, very crude, unsophisticated tactics that are essentially: 'We can't beat you militarily, therefore, we're going to grind your country into dust,'" Day said.
But Day says Putin's options are limited if he's to turn this war around, and a general Russian mobilization would be a bad idea.
If Russian forces are performing at their best, he said crowding the battlefield with poorly prepared reserves is "nonsensical … a further stress on the system."
"It's a sign of desperation that a military the size of Russia needs to activate the reserves to try to defeat a military the size of Ukraine," Day said.
Will Putin mobilize weapons of mass destruction?
Putin has hinted he could use Russian weapons of mass destruction, including the biggest arsenal of nuclear warheads in the world, estimated at 5,977.
"We have all the tools for this, things no one else can boast of having now," Putin said two weeks ago. "And we will not boast, we will use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know that."
Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, isn't so sure Moscow is ready to use nuclear weapons.
He says even smaller, so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons cause too much collateral damage without the ability to wipe out all the things Russian forces might face — a column of tanks, widely dispersed artillery or small squads of soldiers with portable missile launchers, for instance.
"This is just not the kind of a war where nuclear weapons, with the all the firepower that they actually have, could change anything on the battlefield," he said.
The use of such weapons against civilians in a single huge destructive act could "break the will of the state" to keep fighting, he said, but that would require a much higher level of desperation on the part of Russia.
"That threshold is pretty high. I hope that that means that we are not as close to nuclear use as sometimes may seem," Podvig said.
Will Putin make a formal declaration of war?
Putin could still sharpen his threat to launch nuclear weapons tomorrow, or he may hint at a formal declaration of war, which would likely include mass mobilization in Russia.
But even that would carry risks, says Olga Oliker, director of the Europe and Central Asia program at Crisis Group in Brussels. It could cost Putin domestic support.
"Just because you either support the war or are keeping your mouth shut doesn't mean you want to fight in it," she said.
Without a major announcement from Putin or a big change in Western support for Ukraine, few now expect an all-out victory for either side.
Day suggested what's more likely is a long, drawn-out fight, "a slow-moving, highly costly phase of combat."
But it's possible that neither side will have the resources, the ability — or perhaps the will — for an endless war, Oliker said.
"Given the personnel shortages, given the equipment shortages on both sides, but especially on the Russian side, I do wonder how long they can actually keep it up."
If so, Monday's Victory Day parade may be more grand theatre than real threat.