Despite the abject failure of Vladimir Putin’s initial invasion, and the heavy losses his forces have suffered in Ukraine, the Russian president is preparing to hold a triumphant military parade in Moscow. Long convoys of tanks and missile launchers have been seen rumbling through the Russian capital in recent weeks, along with formations of goose-stepping troops, ahead of the annual Victory Day holiday on 9 May – the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Russia or, as it is known there, the Great Patriotic War.
But beyond the bombastic displays of military might that have become customary under Putin’s rule, Western officials have warned that he could use this symbolic date to announce a major escalation in Ukraine. Rumours abound that he is preparing to declare war on Ukraine, putting an end to the fiction that the conflict is a “special military operation”, as Russians are required to call it. This would allow him to call up vast numbers of Russian reserves to bolster his faltering offensive, and perhaps even broaden its scope beyond the borders of Ukraine.
“We have seen a number of statements from Putin about this becoming a war,” said the British defence secretary Ben Wallace on 28 April. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis.‘” Wallace said he would not be surprised if Putin chose Victory Day to announce that “‘we are now at war with the world’s Nazis and we need to mass-mobilise the Russian people‘”. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said he expected the Russian leadership to “do everything they can” to use the anniversary to rally popular support and “distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield”.
Early predictions that Kyiv would fall within 96 hours of the invasion on 24 February and Putin would celebrate Victory Day this year in the Ukrainian capital – just as he celebrated in Sevastopol in 2014 after annexing Crimea – have been proven wrong. But there are signs that Russian forces are nevertheless preparing to stage celebrations in the Ukrainian cities they claim to control, such as Mariupol. There are reports that Russian troops are clearing bodies and debris from the streets of the devastated city ahead of possible events on 9 May. It would be “grotesque”, wrote Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, and a “parade on the bones of Mariupol citizens”.
[see also: The truth about Putin’s denazification fantasy]
It is difficult to overstate the significance of Victory Day in Russia, and its political importance to Putin’s regime. The date marks the anniversary of the German surrender, which came in the early hours of 9 May 1945 in Moscow, due to the difference in time zones, whereas many of the other Allied nations, such as the UK and the US, celebrate Victory in Europe Day – VE Day – on 8 May. The British journalist Alexander Werth described the atmosphere in the Russian capital that day as one of “spontaneous joy” as people “danced and sang in the streets”. Young men, he said, were “so happy that they did not even have to get drunk”.
The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin presided over the first Victory Parade six weeks later, on 24 June 1945, with front-line troops returning directly from the major European battlefields to march through Red Square. But the celebrations did not last long. Stalin urged his citizens to focus their efforts on rebuilding the Soviet economy, and in December 1947 they were informed that 9 May was once again a normal working day.
Victory Day resurfaced as an official holiday in 1965, when Putin was 12 years old, as the then leader Leonid Brezhnev used the memory of the conflict to shore up support for Soviet rule. He embarked on an intensive programme of “military-patriotic” education in Soviet schools and built up what has been called the “cult of the patriotic war” over his near two decades in power. But the glorious myth Brezhnev had cultivated around the Soviet victory began to falter after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, as the new leader permitted greater freedom to research Soviet history and the Stalin-era atrocities. It was tarnished still further by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the economic chaos that followed.
Boris Yeltsin reintroduced Victory Day parades in 1995, on the 50th anniversary, but he was wary of glorifying the Soviet past and playing into the hands of his political rivals in the Communist Party. It wasn’t until Putin came to power at the turn of the millennium that the Soviet victory in 1945 was seized upon once again as a unifying symbol to rally popular support, as the new president set about building his own “cult of the Great Patriotic War”.
Over the 22 years since, he has manipulated the memory of that conflict to suit his needs, airbrushing the extent of Stalin’s atrocities and positioning himself as the heir to that great victory, and the strong leader Russia needs to defend its interests again now. The country, he explains (deliberately conflating Russia and the Soviet Union) was the heroic power that saved the world from Nazism, just as he insists that they are doing now in Ukraine. The lies Putin offers his domestic audience to justify his invasion are steeped in the language and the symbolism of that past war, as he claims to be carrying out a “denazification” campaign and vanquishing Russia’s enemies, as their ancestors did during that great struggle.
Does any of this mean that Putin will declare war and announce the mass mobilisation of Russian citizens on 9 May? His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insists that it does not. “There is no chance of that,” he said on 4 May, “It is nonsense.” But then he also denied that Russia had any intention of invading Ukraine, right up until it did. In truth, only Putin himself likely knows for certain what he plans to do, if he has even made up his mind. But at a minimum, he will use this anniversary to pretend he was won great victories in cities such as Mariupol, and to double down on the pretence that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are righteous and noble, as he stokes support for the months, perhaps years, of conflict ahead.