It was perhaps the most highly anticipated date since Russia launched its war on Ukraine, and it came with crucial questions:
How would Russian President Vladmir Putin and his regime mark May 9 — “Victory Day” — the annual commemoration of the triumph over Nazi Germany? As Grid put it not long ago — How would Putin organize a military celebration when there was so little to celebrate?
On Monday, there were answers and new questions. At the flagship event in Moscow, Russian troops were there in large numbers — roughly 11,000, including, Putin noted, a group of soldiers just back from Ukraine. The usual parade of heavy weaponry moved through Red Square, including tanks and missile systems currently in use in Ukraine. And Putin was at his perch above Lenin’s Tomb, fulminating about the West and the “Nazis” that he insists the Russians are fighting.
“You are fighting for the motherland,” Putin said, “for its future, for no one to forget the lessons of World War II.”
It was a bombastic mix — of honoring past heroes, blasting new enemies and presenting a fervent defense of the current war.
But Victory Day, the 2022 edition, was just as interesting for what didn’t happen.
For weeks, experts and intelligence analysts — many of whom had nailed earlier forecasts about the war — predicted Putin would use the day to recalibrate his military plans, formally declare war and remind the world of the Russian nuclear arsenal. CNN reported U.S. intelligence intercepts suggesting Putin was focused on May 9, as a date on which “he can show a victory.”
In the event, there was no declaration of a wider war — or any “war,” for that matter; Putin continues to call his assault on Ukraine a “special military operation.” And beyond the rhetoric, without a war declaration there can be no mass mobilization of additional forces — something military experts have said repeatedly Putin will need to achieve his aims.
Even a planned flyover of military jets — which this year was to have included the so-called “Doomsday plane” that carries Russian officials in the event of a nuclear attack — was canceled. Bad weather, officials said, though the skies over Red Square looked clear.
Was Putin trying to lower the temperature? Perhaps, although a Grid analysis of Russian media coverage of Victory Day showed no letup in the searing language used not only against the Ukrainians but NATO and the West as well. Security concerns may have played a part in calling off the flyover; after all, Russian generals, warships and tanks have been taken out at high rates — and recent strikes inside Russian territory may have given the Kremlin pause.
It is also possible that on a day that demands a certain degree of triumphalism, this was the best Putin could manage.
What Putin said
Putin’s Victory Day speech hammered at two main themes: a justification for the invasion of Ukraine, replete with grievances and false claims; and the failure of NATO and the U.S. to listen to Russian demands. In a sense it was an extension of the two Kremlin addresses Putin gave in late February on the eve of war.
Here again were the claims that Russia had sought “an honest dialogue” with the West, that “it was all in vain,” and that “NATO countries did not want to listen.” There were fresh shots at Washington: “The United States, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, began talking about its exclusivity, abasing not only the whole world but also its satellites, which have to pretend that they don’t see anything and obediently swallow it up.”
Above all, Putin wallowed in his trademark mangling of the facts — some call it “misinformation,” but really these are outright fictions: The invasion was necessary because foreign “preparations were underway for another punitive operation in Donbas, the invasion of our historical lands, including Crimea.” Putin said the Ukrainian government had “announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.” And on a day that exists to recall the victory over Nazi Germany, he made frequent (and false) references to the “Nazis” in Ukraine. Russia had been forced into battle, he said, “so that there is no place in the world for executioners, punishers and Nazis.”
It was perhaps impossible — on a date so intertwined with past military sacrifice — for Putin to avoid some acknowledgment of current sacrifice. But the Kremlin has understated Russian losses, and Putin himself has rarely mentioned them. So it was surprising to hear the Russian leader state publicly that “the death of each one of our soldiers and officers is our shared grief, and an irreparable loss for their friends and relatives.”
What Russian media said
The Russian media, which marches in lockstep with the Kremlin, carried blanket coverage of the Victory Day events, and if anything, they took their messaging a few steps further.
In the run-up to May 9, there were frequent reports of preparations for Victory Day in the “liberated” territories of Ukraine. “Peaceful life is slowly returning in the territories liberated from Ukrainian nationalists,” the Federal News Agency claimed. People “are actively preparing to celebrate Victory Day, honoring monuments to Soviet soldiers and bringing order to the streets.” Channel One noted that “nothing will prevent residents of the liberated territories from taking part in all the events that we plan to hold on May 9.”
But there are in fact few such “liberated territories” — and in the few areas where Russian forces walk the streets, no signs they have been met as “liberators.”
The closest Russian media came to reporting a “celebration” inside Ukraine was from the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, where Russian attacks have killed at least 10,000 civilians, and a small group of Ukrainian forces continue to hold out in the Azovstal steelworks. Major Russian networks noted that the Eternal Flame was lit at Mariupol’s World War II monument to “Victims of Fascism,” and that “participants in the parade unfurled a 300-meter St. George ribbon in honor of Victory Day.” Even here, “victory” was a subdued one.
Russian broadcasters took pains to draw parallels between the past and present wars. One phrase was repeated on many broadcasts: “We won then, we will win now.” Ukraine.ru published an article titled “The Great Patriotic War in Ukraine” — using the term Russians use to describe World War II. The article included this outlandish charge against today’s Ukraine: “Is it any wonder that the grandchildren of the Nazi collaborators from the Great Patriotic War, having seized power, continue the work of their grandfathers to destroy the Russian urban culture of Ukraine, which is hostile to them?”
In other words, the people in charge of Ukraine today are Nazis or their equivalent.
This has been a mantra of the Russian press since the onset of war: Multiple Russian platforms have compared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Hitler. An article under the headline, “Revealed, what Zelenskyy and Hitler have in common,” was published by Radio Sputnik in the first days of the war. Ukraine itself is regularly equated with the Third Reich; some Russian media have even coined a special term: “Ukroreich.”
Meanwhile, Russian talk shows and information programs used Victory Day coverage to attack the West. Said one: “The West is rewriting history and is on the side of the fascists, because it was on the side of the fascists the previous time.” A longer version of this myth was published at the end of March; on Monday it was repeated widely. What this means — about the current situation or the past — is not clear. But it is a Russian narrative. As is the contention that Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but with the U.S. and NATO.
That latter point has only been amplified following last week’s reports in the American press that the U.S. was providing Ukrainian forces with intelligence that helped them kill Russian generals. The business newspaper Vzglyad said the reports proved that “the Americans in essence are already participating in the war against Russia, albeit by proxy.” A similar line was picked up by the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. “We are not only fighting the Nazis in Ukraine,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “We are liberating Ukraine from NATO occupation and pushing the worst enemy away from our western borders.”
For a few moments, the Russian media production of Victory Day went off script. Way off script.
According to BBC Monitoring, digital program guides for several major Russian television networks switched to an anti-war message. On the Channel 1 electronic program guide, the names of all the listed programs vanished, and this was in their place: “On your hands is the blood of thousands of Ukrainians and hundreds of their murdered children. TV and the authorities are lying. No to war.”
Meanwhile, workers at a formerly independent news website, Lenta.ru, changed the text of roughly a dozen articles Monday morning to condemn the “pathetic dictator Putin” and the “weak-willed Russian elite” who were enabling the war in Ukraine. The articles called President Vladimir Putin a “pitiful and paranoid dictator” and accused him of waging “the bloodiest war of the 21st Century.” Another said that “war makes it easier to cover up failures in the economy. Putin must go.”
The articles have disappeared. So have the TV program guides.
But one of the journalists, Yegor Polakov, took the brave step of taking credit for the act and speaking about it.
“We had to do it today,” Polakov told the Guardian. “We wanted to remind everyone what our grandfathers really fought for on this beautiful Victory Day — for peace. We couldn’t accept this any longer. This was the only right thing we could do.”
Meanwhile, on the battlefields …
While Putin and his aides were preparing for Victory Day, Ukrainian forces were marshaling a counteroffensive around the strategically critical city of Kharkiv, a move that will likely draw Russian forces from their operations in other parts of eastern Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War. It was only the latest setback for Moscow, the latest example of how “victory” — whether in time for Victory Day or any other occasion — has proved so elusive.
As Grid reported in late March, Russian military leaders had announced a tactical shift to the east, a move that many believed was meant in part to capture some terrain ahead of the Victory Day celebrations.
But even in the east, the gains have been few, and the war there looks like a long slog. More than two months into the war, Russian ground forces have incurred staggering losses of men and materiel, and without the mobilization — the callup Putin did not announce Monday — the stresses will remain. Rob Lee, an expert in the Russian military at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said via Twitter that “the level of attrition and forces committed isn’t sustainable.”
Putin ended his speech with the traditional May 9 rallying cry: “To Russia! To victory! Hooray!” The soldiers on Red Square responded with a lusty “Hooray!” of their own.
It is impossible to know when or whether “victory” in Ukraine will come, and if it does, for what side or at what cost. Only that it will carry enormous sacrifice. It’s impossible also to imagine what “Victory Day” will look like — in Red Square and other parts of Russia — in 2023.