On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his people — and the world — that a “special military operation” was needed to right a series of wrongs in Ukraine and beyond. Russians in eastern Ukraine were victims of “genocide,” and the country was led by a “Nazi” regime. Beyond Ukraine, Putin said NATO had ignored repeated warnings to stop its eastward push.
It was time for an answer, the Russian leader said. That day, the troops went in.
It was a rambling speech, but its core message was captured in a few lines: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who … have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”
For all the battlefield turns since that fateful day — the early Russian onslaught and surprising Ukrainian resistance; the heavy Russian losses and subsequent shift to the eastern front — we are no closer, five months later, to divining Putin’s aspirations for an endgame in Ukraine. He remains dismissive of Ukraine’s leaders and furious with NATO and the West — even more so now than before — and he rails often about his dreams of a Greater Russia. But we don’t know whether Putin still believes victory requires taking the capital, Kyiv, and bringing about regime change in Ukraine — nor how he measures those aims against the staggering toll of his “military operation” to date. We don’t know to what extent he worries about Russian casualties, the occasional bubbling up of anti-war dissent, the exodus of Russian citizens or the economic punishments levied against his country.
Here’s one thing we do know: Given the mission he articulated in February and what has happened since, Vladimir Putin could give a victory speech tomorrow. It would likely be a blend of fact, twisted fact and outright invention — but Putin mixes reality and fantasy on a regular basis.
The Russian leader probably expected to declare victory in the early days of the war. He may well have had a speech prepared. In the runup to May 9 — the Victory Day holiday in Russia — the assumption was that Putin had to offer something like a victory address for the occasion. The problem was, he didn’t have the goods. Now he is getting closer — particularly when one allows for some typical Kremlin stretching of the truth.
Russia is hardly “winning” the war in Ukraine. But its forces have made gains since the Kremlin turned its military focus to the east and south, and the Russian position is appreciably better than it was on Victory Day. If Putin wished to stanch the bleeding of his armed forces and his country’s economy — and perhaps even claim a kind of high ground after months of being branded globally as a genocidal war criminal, he could do something about it. He could call in the Kremlin cameras and media machine and announce to the world: Mission accomplished.
“Yes, of course, Putin could declare victory, if he wished to,” said Ksenia Kirillova, a former reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and now an analyst of Russian media and propaganda. “And he already has enough things that he could call ‘completing the tasks of a special military operation.’”
Grid spoke to Russians and others versed in the ways the Kremlin, the Russian media and Putin himself communicate to their people and to the world. They imagined the speech Putin might give, how it might be received — and the odds that he might deliver it anytime soon.
“We have achieved our goals”
A Putin “victory speech” would not only mix fact and fiction; it would also likely cause an uproar and perhaps a reinvigorated resistance from Ukraine. But experts told Grid that Kremlin speechwriters would have no problem drafting an argument that Putin’s “special military operation” has succeeded.
Vasily Gatov, an expert in Russian media at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center, said the Russian leader’s strongest point would be that he has “pacified” those regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
“If I was Putin’s speechwriter, I would offer him these possible narratives: ‘We saved the people of Donbas and southern Ukraine. We secured their will for independence and affiliation with Greater Russia.’ The ‘victory’ in this narrative is that those ‘people’s republics’ are now liberated. They can now merge with Russia as they desired.”
Kirillova agreed: Putin’s best argument, she said, is that “he has accomplished the ‘liberation of the Donbas,’” as Putin calls his operations in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, “and perhaps other territory on which, according to Russian propaganda, Russian people are oppressed.”
Eurasia Group CEO Ian Bremmer noted in his July 25 newsletter the likelihood that Russia will soon move to annex these territories, “formally incorporating Ukrainian land, citizens and resources into the Russian federation.” At which point, Bremmer wrote, “President Vladimir Putin gets to announce a ‘win’.”
Former Russian TV host and Grid Special Contributor Stanislav Kucher said Putin and his propaganda apparatus would have no trouble listing achievements — real and otherwise — and selling them to the Russian people.
“Theoretically, one can imagine Putin delivering a victory speech,” Kucher told Grid. “Saying something like, ‘We have achieved our goals, we have brought back the east of Ukraine and Novorossiya (another term for the eastern territories). We have eliminated the ‘Nazis,’ punished the corrupt Ukrainian government, and we have scared the *** out of Europe and America.”
Such a speech would be helped by a certain straw-man factor: Putin could claim victory over enemies that never really existed. He can say that Russia has succeeded in the “denazification” of Ukraine — because the problem as defined by Putin wasn’t there in the first place. Grid and others have reported on the ways in which Putin has manipulated history and fact, creating a noxious stew of misinformation that casts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and local Ukrainhian officials as “Nazis” and war criminals. As Kirillova noted, these tropes continue to be mainstays of Russian media — and polling suggests a majority of the Russian public continues to believe them.
Gatov believes Putin could build upon another fiction — the notion that the U.S. was helping Ukraine produce chemical and biological weapons — and claim “victory” there as well.
“He can say, ‘We destroyed the potential to create and build deadly weapons that threatened our security.’ This narrative will stress that Russia achieved these outcomes without major efforts and still has a strong, now battle-hardened army to scare off enemies elsewhere.”
Beyond Ukraine’s borders, Putin might claim successes on the geopolitical chessboard. He can argue with credibility that much of the world has stood with him (see China, India to a certain extent and various corners of the Global South), despite all the efforts by Europe and the U.S. to isolate his country. Russia has managed to keep its coffers stocked with revenues from oil and gas, among other commodities. In this vein, Kirillova said Putin would likely invoke a theme he has turned to often — “the liberation of Russia from the ‘colonial Anglo-Saxon yoke,’ because Russia was able to survive the break with the West, and its economy withstood it.”
Many made the point that the rhetorical framework Putin established — namely, that the war isn’t a “war,” but a “special military operation,” would afford him wiggle room in stepping back from the campaign.
“‘Special military operation’ provides greater flexibility in case decisive victory has not been achieved,” Gatov told Grid. “It resembles the old Soviet Newspeak — as when the (Soviet) invasion and war in Afghanistan was called ‘international brotherly help for the Afghan people.’”
Putin’s “victory speech”
Here then, with the help of these Russians who understand how the Kremlin communicates, is a victory speech for the Russian president. (With apologies for the factual errors within).
My fellow countrymen!
I come to you to report that our nation’s Special Military Operation has ended. We have achieved our objectives. I am very proud of our armed forces and you should be as well.
We faced a serious threat and we have ended it. We have taken territory that belongs to our Russian brothers and sisters in the east and south of Ukraine. We have pacified and denazified the Donbas — as I promised we would. We have restored order to these key regions. Our brethren there are embracing the armed forces of Russia in gratitude.
We have taught a powerful lesson to the Nazi puppet regime in Kyiv, and more important, we have sent a clear message to the members of NATO that they cannot trample with impunity upon our lands and our people and impose their decadent liberal values on our culture. NATO now understands that it cannot threaten Russian territory without a loud response.
We have vanquished the threat of Nazification.
We have stood strong in the face of unprecedented and unjust economic attacks against the Russian nation. Our economy is stronger and more self-sufficient than ever.
And while the U.S. and its stooges in NATO have made statements about isolating Russia and making Vladmir Putin a “pariah” — well, as you can see, I am here, we are here, and we have friends all around the world who have stood with us, who have supported us. I do not believe “pariah” is a word you would choose when you consider that I have enjoyed meetings and dialogues with the leaders of China and India, Turkey and Iran — these are, incidentally, some of the most important nations on earth, representing some of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations and cultures.
In the end, it must also be said that we have shown restraint. We could have obliterated cities. We could have taken all of Ukraine. We could have used our nuclear weapons.
We are responsible global citizens. We chose not to do those things.
My fellow countrymen — in less than six months, we have accomplished our mission. There is no more need for fighting and bloodshed. We call on the leaders of Ukraine to understand and to embrace an end to hostilities.
I thank you for your support and for your love of the Fatherland.
The real thing would of course be much longer. And again, much of it would be a work of fiction.
Russia has, in fact, obliterated cities. It did try, and it failed to take more Ukrainian land — including the capital. Whatever “messages” are sent to NATO and Ukraine itself, both have been strengthened by Putin’s war. As Bremmer put it, “If Putin invaded Ukraine because he was concerned about NATO encroachment, Russia’s security position over the next five years will be dramatically weaker on this score … with 1,000 kilometers more direct NATO border to defend against, encirclement in the Baltic Sea and facing hundreds of thousands of battle-ready forward-deployed troops.”
As for that ask of Ukrainians — that they “embrace an end to hostilities” — there’s no chance of that at the moment.
As Kirillova put it, “Don’t ask me where is the logic” in anything Putin says. But she and the others believe these are words and phrases he and his speechwriters might well employ.
Would he give that speech?
Declaring victory now — or in the near future — would accomplish several things for the Kremlin.
It would bring pressure on Ukraine from some quarters to at least come to the bargaining table. There are already fractures in the European alliance and questions, as Joshua Keating reported recently, as to how long the world will “stand With Ukraine.” It might lead to a reversal of some economic sanctions, which are likely to have greater impact if the war drags on.
It’s a long shot — given the likely Ukrainian response — but it might at least momentarily slow the hemorrhaging of Russia’s armed forces. Russian troop losses are somewhere between 15,000 (NATO’s estimate) and 38,000 (Ukraine’s). Last week news leaked from a classified U.S. intelligence briefing in which the figure for killed and wounded Russian soldiers was given as 75,000. These are staggering counts, even at the low end.
From a public relations standpoint, the global support Putin has found would be strengthened — and important “on-the-fence” nations (Turkey; India; Saudi Arabia) would likely pivot to firmer support for the Kremlin. Strangely, after all we have seen in the last five months, Putin could claim to occupy the high road. Having threatened a nuclear response to any who interfered with his military aims, he has taken no military action against NATO or its robust supply line of military equipment for Ukraine.
Within Russia itself, the experts suggested two possible outcomes: first, a high likelihood that the Russian public would buy in to all the arguments — facts be damned. As Kirillova noted, they have already bought into far stranger fictional narratives about the war. On the other hand, there is the possibility that some Russians might wonder (quietly at least), given the level of sacrifice: “That’s it? This is all we got, for all the sacrifice?”
That latter point explains why many say Putin isn’t ready to deliver the “victory speech.”
For one thing, Putin may think he’s winning. And while there are a range of forecasts for the next phases of the war, he may believe there are more battlefield “wins” to be had.
“Everything is going according to plan. That’s the line from Putin,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. “Senior Kremlin officials keep repeating that Russia, gaining the upper hand in Ukraine’s east, will achieve all its goals … That might seem hard to believe, but it’s what the Kremlin seems to believe.”
From a political standpoint, Kirillova and others believe the war suits Putin’s purposes at the moment.
“Putin may be in no hurry with this,” Kirillova told Grid. “War is now beneficial to Putin.” While the war is going on, she said, “Putin’s high rating is ensured, the population lives in the mode of ‘military mobilization,’ and therefore is ready to endure poverty and deprivation; the protest potential in such conditions is extremely low, and the authorities can justify any repressions by the laws of war.”
Perhaps the most important question is the most difficult to answer: What is Putin’s endgame? Specifically, to what extent does he embrace a pair of goals far grander than the taking of territory: regime change in Kyiv and a new world order beyond?
Kucher doesn’t believe Putin will deliver a “victory speech” until he has much more in hand. “Putin is a gambler,” he said. “He is convinced that everyone will succumb to him. He will cut off gas to Germany, then he will hurt [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan with grain supplies, then the West will decide to surrender Ukraine, etc. — that’s his plan and that’s what he hopes for. He is convinced that the West and the [United] States will allow him everything — especially after the statements of [Henry] Kissinger and European politicians about the necessity and inevitability of territorial concessions.”
Putin’s spoken goals have vacillated often, from the “demilitarization and denazification” of all of Ukraine, to the “liberation of the Donbas.” His threats against NATO and the West have been woven into all this. More generally, he has wavered from bellicose threats to opening windows for negotiations — in one July 7 speech, he did both.
In January, Grid’s Joshua Keating wrote a piece under the heading: “Invading Ukraine would be a terrible idea for Putin. He might do it anyway.” Something of a reverse logic may be in play now: “Giving a victory speech might be a smart way out; it’s doubtful Vladimir Putin will do it.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.